IN THE KITCHEN — With concerns about catching the H1N1 virus still in the forefront, county health officials urge people to practice good hygiene and safe food handling to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria this Thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving is a time to gather and a time to celebrate,” said Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, director of public health for the county. “Unfortunately, pandemic H1N1 influenza is still circulating throughout Los Angeles County. Healthy hygiene habits such as washing your hands often and not preparing food if you are sick can help protect your family and friends and keeps the celebration going,”

To help prevent the spread of flu, everyone should wash their hands often, especially before and after eating and after using the restroom. Cooks should wash hands thoroughly before, during and after meal preparation, and should avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth.

“If you are ill, especially with vomiting or diarrhea, let someone else prepare the holiday meal. Friends or family who are sick should avoid close contact with others,” Fielding said. “Everyone should be able to enjoy a full and healthy holiday season, and these hygiene habits not only help prevent the spread of flu, but also help prevent the spread of food borne illness.”

Each year the Public Health Department investigates cases of food borne illness during the holidays that are the result of undercooked food and poor food handling practices. Typical symptoms of food borne illness (sometimes known as food poisoning) include stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea, all of which can start hours or days after consuming contaminated food or drink. For healthy people, most symptoms usually go away after a few hours or days without treatment.

But food borne illness can be severe and even life-threatening in older adults, infants and young children, pregnant women, and those with conditions that weaken their immune systems, such as HIV/AIDS or cancer drug therapy.

Raw turkey, chicken, or meats can contain Campylobacter or Salmonella bacteria that cause diarrhea and other problems. These bacteria can multiply rapidly when poultry is taken out of refrigeration and before it is thoroughly cooked. Freezing does not kill these bacteria, but they are destroyed when food is cooked to the proper temperature.

To thaw a turkey (by refrigerator, cold water or microwave):

• Place frozen turkey in original wrapper in the refrigerator (40 degrees or below). Allow approximately 24 hours per 5 pounds of turkey. After thawing, keep turkey refrigerated for only one to two days before cooking.

• A turkey that has been thawed in the refrigerator can be re-frozen. It is not recommended to refreeze a turkey that has been thawed using other methods.

• Place securely wrapped turkey in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow about 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. Cook immediately after thawing.

• Check to see if the turkey is not too large and fits comfortably in the microwave. Check manufacturer’s instructions for the size of turkey that will fit in your microwave oven, the minutes per pound, and the power level to use for thawing. Cook immediately after thawing.

To cook a turkey:

• When roasting a whole turkey, use a food thermometer to make sure it cooks to 165 degrees or higher. Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh, but not against the bone.

• For safety and uniform doneness, cook stuffing separately in a casserole dish.

• For pre-cooked turkey dinners, eat within two hours or refrigerate components separately, then reheat to a temperature of at least 165 degrees.

When purchasing a fresh turkey, plan to cook it within one to two days after purchase. Do not buy fresh pre-stuffed turkeys. If not handled properly, any harmful bacteria that may be in the stuffing can multiply very quickly. Frozen pre-stuffed turkeys are safe because they have been processed under controlled conditions. Do not thaw frozen pre-stuffed turkeys. Cook from the frozen state by following package directions.

For all other meats:

• Follow directions to ensure thorough cooking.

“You cannot get H1N1 flu (formerly known as swine flu) from eating ham or other pork products. However, all meats should be roasted, barbecued, deep fried or otherwise cooked thoroughly to at least 165 degrees, in order to kill bacteria that could cause food borne illness,” Fielding said.

Other food handling tips include:

• Wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating or cutting into them.

• Separate raw meats and poultry from other foods such as fruits and vegetables. Avoid cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards, knives, and platters for these foods.

• Wash cutting boards, utensils, and platters after preparing each food item and before going on to the next item.

• Bring sauces, soups, and gravies to a rolling boil when re-heating.

• Keep hot foods hot. Use chafing dishes or pans with Sternos or other heating devices, or keep foods in the oven at a temperature to ensure they remain at 135 degrees or above.

• Keep cold foods cold. Refrigerate leftovers within two hours. Throw out foods that should have been kept cold, but have been left out for more than two hours.

• “Taste testing” food or drinks to see if they have spoiled is not recommended.

Raw or lightly cooked egg or egg products, used in foods such as salad dressings, cookie or cake batter, sauces such as hollandaise sauce, and beverages such as eggnog, can cause food borne illnesses. Avoid eating uncooked items containing raw or lightly cooked egg or egg products. Substitute pasteurized eggs when cooking these foods.

For more information on safe cooking, visit the USDA Web site at www.usda.gov or call their toll-free Meat and Poultry Hotline at (888) 674-6854. For the Hearing Impaired: (800) 256-7072 (TTY). You may speak with a food safety specialist, in English or Spanish, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time during the week year round. An extensive menu of recorded food safety messages may be heard 24 hours a day.

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