9 Tips for Preventing Food Poisoning

iStock.com/skynesher
iStock.com/skynesher

Thanksgiving is meant to be a time of gratitude and family togetherness, not upset stomachs, cramps, and diarrhea. But these and other symptoms of food poisoning can be caused by Salmonella, Norovirus, E. coli, and other pathogens that lurk in our food. Every year, about 1 in 6 Americans—48 million people—come down with food poisoning, according to the CDC. In order to prevent you from being one of them, here are some simple tips for reducing the risk of contracting a foodborne illness, because no one wants to spend Black Friday on the couch clutching the Pepto-Bismol. (If stomach symptoms do strike, here's our handy guide for how to tell if it's food poisoning or something else.)

1. To prevent food poisoning, keep your raw meat away from everything else.

It's easy for raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs to spread germs to foods you might not cook before eating, like greens or bread. That's why it's best to separate the raw animal products from everything else in your shopping cart and in your food prep area, including using different cutting boards or plates. You also want to separate those raw animal products in the fridge, and possibly keep them on the bottom shelf to avoid drips further down. When it comes to turkey, keep it on a tray or pan to catch any juices that might leak. That's an especially good idea this year, amid a salmonella outbreak involving 35 states.

2. Minimize germs by washing your hands and work area (with soap).

Pesky germs love to linger on hands, utensils, counters, and cutting surfaces. Before you start cooking, making sure everything is clean, and wash up throughly with soap and hot water. The CDC advises washing hands "for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food and before eating." In case you don't have a timer handy, that's the length of humming Happy Birthday twice.

3. Wash your produce too.

Produce is a common carrier of norovirus and E. coli, among other nasties. (Romaine lettuce seems especially vulnerable to the latter; as of November 2018, a new outbreak has the CDC warning people not to eat it at all). But you can reduce your risk somewhat by rinsing your fruits and vegetables in plain tap water. According to an expert USA Today spoke to, rinsing removes 90 percent of the pathogens food attracts during growing and shipping. The best method is to rub while rinsing, then dry with a (clean, obviously) towel. For food with hard skins or rinds, like potatoes, peeling is even more effective than rinsing.

The exception is bagged greens advertised as pre-washed: The bacteria in your kitchen is likely to mean that rinsing will do more harm than good.

However, don't rinse your meat or poultry—you'll probably just splash the bacteria around.

4. Thaw your meat correctly.

Don't buy your turkey until a day or two before you plan to cook it, then keep it frozen and in its original wrapper until ready to thaw it. (If your turkey is pre-stuffed, don't thaw it at all; cook from the package directions.) According to the USDA, there's only three safe ways to thaw: In the fridge, in cold water, or in a microwave. Keep in mind that larger birds can take a considerable amount of time to thaw in the refrigerator, so plan ahead accordingly. (The USDA has a handy timetable for how long birds of various sizes need to thaw.) If you're short on time, cold water is the best option. Figure 30 minutes for every pound of bird, and change the water every 30 minutes.

If properly thawed in the fridge, you can re-freeze your turkey if necessary, but don't refreeze if after using the other methods. And never thaw food by just leaving it to sit out on the counter—bacteria will start to multiple in a flash once parts of the grub reach room temperature.

5. Cook thoroughly.

It's important to get food hot enough, for long enough, that germs can be killed. When it's time to roast the turkey, you shouldn't be setting your oven temperature any lower than 325°F. Make sure the bird has been cooked through by using a food thermometer to check the thickest part of the breast and innermost part of the thigh or wing; the thermometer should read at least 165°F. The same temperature is good for any kind of whole poultry, breasts, or thighs, as well as ground chicken or turkey and casseroles. Stuffing, too. Fresh ham or fish can be a little cooler—145°F.

Keep in mind that an unstuffed 8-pound turkey will take anywhere from 1.5 to 3.25 hours to cook thoroughly, and an 8-12 pounder from 2.75 to 3 hours, so it's important to plan ahead. Don't assume you can check for doneness just by looking—even done meat can be pink.

And whatever you do, don't use an oral thermometer. Humans run at lower temps than roasted fowl, and regular oral thermometers can break in the high heat, adding glass and mercury to your entrees. Maybe not food poisoning, but not good.

6. Give your proteins a rest.

Resting can help meat juices to set and make carving easier. For some foods, particularly steak, fresh pork, or fresh ham, it can also help kill germs, as the temperatures remain at a constant or continue to rise. Other foods, like fish, don't need to rest at all.

7. Skip the stuffing. (Or bake it outside the bird.)

Sorry, Thanksgiving purists: Cooking stuffing inside a turkey isn't recommended—that bready mush is porous and thus perfect for soaking up salmonella-laden juices. According to author and TV personality Alton Brown, getting the stuffing to 165°F usually means overcooking the rest of the bird. "The way I see it, cooking stuffing inside a turkey turns the turkey into a rather costly seal-a-meal bag," he writes in his book Good Eats." If you're a stuffing fan, I suggest cooking it separately (in which case it's 'dressing,' not stuffing) and inserting it into the bird while it rests."

8. While you're at it, skip the oysters too.

Some foods are riskier than others when it comes to food poisoning. If it's raw or rare, especially if it's an animal product, chances are it has some unwanted baggage. Raw oysters, in particular, are breeding grounds for bacteria because they're filter feeders, which means they suck up a lot of viruses and bacteria. Cook all seafood to 145°F, and warm up any leftovers to 165°F.

9. Don't keep food hanging around.

Bacteria thrive between 40°F and 140°F—which means the average indoor house temperature is a perfect breeding zone. That's also why you don't want to leave food sitting out for more than two hours, and only one hour if it's above 90°F outside. Keep your fridge nice and cool, too—ideally below 40°F. And don't let leftovers linger even in the fridge—three or four days, max.

10 Delicious Hot Chocolate Mix-Ins

Lilechka75/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Lilechka75/iStock via Getty Images Plus

It's hot chocolate season—and while there's nothing wrong with plopping in a few marshmallows into your hot cocoa, there are many other ways to spice it up. Whether you're bored or just looking to try something new, these 10 ingredients will take your hot chocolate to the next level.

1. Peanut Butter

A jar of peanut butter in a white bowl with peanuts on a blue table.
Kevin Brine/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If you're a fan of the peanut butter and chocolate combination, this recipe from One Ordinary Day is for you. Just add a few dollops of regular, creamy peanut butter right into your saucepan along with the chocolate and enjoy.

2. Nutella

For a hazelnut flavor, mix some nutella into the saucepan. This one goes best with a whipped cream garnish.

3. Maple Syrup

Maple syrup in a glass bottle on a wooden table.
showcake/iStock via Getty Images Plus

For a New England twist on cocoa, add a couple teaspoons of maple syrup. If you need an extra kick, a couple pinches of nutmeg will do.

4. Cinnamon

A mere teaspoon of cinnamon in a saucepan of hot chocolate is all it takes to create a delicious mix of cinnamon hot chocolate.

5. Oreos

sandwich cookies on a blue background
stacey_newman/iStock via Getty Images Plus

You’ll need a food processor or blender to chop up around four oreos until they're the texture of sugar. Add it to the hot chocolate mix, then top with whipped cream and more crushed Oreos.

6. Peppermint

For a batch of peppermint hot chocolate, all it takes is three drops of peppermint oil and a pinch of salt.

7. Ginger

fresh ginger on a black background
martinrlee/iStock via Getty Images Plus

To make hot cocoa taste like gingerbread, add one piece of ginger, 10 cloves, and two cinnamon sticks while cooking.

8. Chili Powder

If you really want to spice up the beverage, whip up a batch of Mexican hot chocolate. This includes a little bit of ground cinnamon and a pinch of chili powder.

9. Cherry

Cherries in a jar.
Freila/iStock via Getty Images Plus

For a full batch of hot chocolate to taste like cherry, it takes a few tablespoons of maraschino cherry juice.

10. Booze

There are many types of alcohol that go well in hot chocolate. Some options include brandy, Kahlua, peppermint schnapps, raspberry liqueur, tequila, amaretto, Bailey’s Irish Creme, and even red wine.

101 Years Later: Remembering Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Boston Public Library, Flickr, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Boston Public Library, Flickr, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On January 15, 1919, Boston suffered one of history’s strangest disasters: a devastating flood of molasses. The “Great Molasses Flood” tore through the city's North End and deposited so much gooey residue that locals claimed they could still smell the molasses on warm days decades later.

While most of us probably think of molasses as a tasty ingredient in treats like gingerbread, the sticky stuff has quite a few other uses. With a little know-how, one can turn molasses into rum or industrial alcohol fairly easily, and the Purity Distilling Company had built the gigantic tank in Boston’s North End in 1915 to supply its booze-making operations.

The steel tank was enormous: 50 feet tall, 90 feet across, and capable of holding 2.5 million gallons of molasses. (Although Prohibition kicked in with Nebraska’s ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment the very next day after the 1919 disaster, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, Purity Distilling’s parent company, still had a license to distill alcohol for industrial applications.)


By Unknown - Anthony Mitchell Sammarco. Boston's North End. Arcadia Publishing, 2004, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The massive tank was nearly full on January 15, thanks to a recent infusion of 2.3 million gallons of molasses from Puerto Rico. Just after noon, something went horribly wrong. Witnesses later recalled hearing a noise like gunfire as the tank’s rivets popped and the steel sides ripped open. Suddenly, 26 million pounds of molasses were tearing down Commercial Street in a 15-foot wave.

A shockingly destructive force

A giant wave of a sticky foodstuff sounds like something from a cartoon, but the surging molasses was a shockingly destructive force. The wave moved at upwards of 35 mph, and the power was sufficient to rip buildings off of their foundations. The molasses snapped the support girders from an elevated train track and smashed multiple houses. The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities’s website claimed the property damage alone totaled around $100 million in today’s dollars.

The human cost of the disaster was even more grim. The wave of molasses moved so quickly and so forcefully that anyone who was unlucky enough to be in its way didn’t stand much of a chance. They were either knocked over and crushed or drowned in the goo. The flood claimed 21 lives, and another 150 people suffered injuries. Any flood would have been disastrous, but the viscous nature of molasses made rescue attempts even trickier. Medics and police officers arrived on the scene quickly but had to slog through waist-deep goo to reach victims.


Boston Post, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Even after the victims had been pulled from the muck, cleanup crews quickly learned that getting rid of 2 million gallons of molasses is no small task. In his book Dark Tide, Stephen Puleo wrote about one of the chief obstacles to the cleanup: firefighters couldn’t just use their hoses to blast the molasses off of buildings and streets with fresh water. Eventually they realized that saltwater would cut the hardened molasses and enable them to hose it down the streets into gutters. Thanks to all the foot traffic of rescue workers, cleanup crews, and rubberneckers, the sticky mess quickly moved around the city via people's shoes. In all, the cleanup effort required over 80,000 man-hours.

The Blame Game

How did this tragedy happen in the first place? The United States Industrial Alcohol Company was quick to blame everyone’s favorite early 20th-century scapegoats: anarchists. The company claimed that since its alcohol was an ingredient in government munitions, anarchists must have sabotaged the tank by detonating a bomb. Another theory explained that the molasses had fermented inside the tank, which led to an explosion.

Investigators soon found the real culprit, though: shoddy construction work. The company had been in such a hurry to get the tank built back in 1915 that it didn’t cut corners so much as it ignored the corners completely. Modern studies have found that the tank walls were both too thin and made of a steel that was too brittle to withstand the volume of molasses.

The man who oversaw the construction wasn’t an engineer or an architect; in fact, he couldn’t even read a blueprint. The tank needed to be an engineering marvel to hold all that weight, but the company never even consulted an engineer on the project. Basically, it threw up a gigantic tank as quickly and as cheaply as possible, skimped on inspections and safety tests, and hoped for the best.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In light of these details, it’s amazing that the tank held together for four years. Nearby residents reported that the tank had leaked since its construction. Rather than fix the problem, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company had painted the tank brown so the leaks would be less noticeable.

The largely working-class North End residents who had lost their homes and loved ones in the disaster predictably turned their rage toward the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. USIA soon found itself named as the defendant in 125 lawsuits, which led to a legal battle that nearly matched the flood’s scale.

The Massachusetts Superior Court named Colonel Hugh Ogden as the auditor who would hear the evidence and report back on the cause of the disaster. It took Ogden nearly six years to hear testimony from 3000 witnesses. When he finally penned his report, he concluded that there was no evidence to support the company’s theory of anarchist saboteurs. Instead, Ogden found that the “factor of safety” in the tank’s construction and inspection had been woefully low. USIA was liable for the damage and paid around $7000 to the family of each victim.

The Great Molasses Flood still seems like a tragedy that could have been averted, but the disaster really drew attention to the potential repercussions of shaky construction. The case helped prompt Massachusetts and many other states to pass laws requiring that engineers and architects inspect and approve plans for major construction projects.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER