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Don’t accidentally poison your holiday guests!

A few simple measures will help prevent food-safety problems for the harried holiday cook. Phil Lempert has guidelines.

'Tis the season to be jolly. Parties. Family and friends. Great food and drink. Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas and then New Year’s — opportunities one right after another for fun get-togethers.

And, unfortunately, for food-safety problems.

At this time of year, many of us are preparing foods in larger sized quantities and under tighter time pressures than usual. As a result, the chances for compromised food safety increase.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Three bacterias alone — salmonella, listeria, and toxoplasma — are responsible for 1,500 deaths each year.

That’s the bad news. The good is that you can do something about it with a few simple precautions. Here are my tips:

Step #1: Clean

Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water for a full 20 seconds before and after handling raw products.

  • Use plastic or other non-porous cutting boards. Cutting boards should be run through the dishwasher at a high temperature setting — or thoroughly washed with soap and hot water — after each use.

Step #2: Combat cross-contamination

  • Store raw meat, poultry and seafood on a plate or tray so raw juices don't drip onto other foods.
  • Use one cutting board for raw meat products and another one for salads and other ready-to-eat foods, or wash cutting boards thoroughly between each use.
  • Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry or seafood.
  • Don't spread bacteria with dirty sponges, dishcloths, or towels. Bacteria often thrive in the moist areas of these items where bits of food may also exist. Use paper towels or freshly cleaned sponges or cloths and soap and hot water to clean food preparation surfaces.

Step #3: Cook safely

  • For meat, poultry and other dishes, use a food thermometer to make sure foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature. When cooking a whole turkey, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh.  The internal temperature should reach a minimum of 180°F. It is recommended to cook stuffing outside the bird. Meats like pork and beef should be cooked to 170°F. (See full chart below.)
  • Cook eggs until the yolks and whites are firm or reach 160ºF on a food thermometer. Don't use recipes in which eggs remain raw or only partially cooked. Cook egg dishes until they reach 160ºF.
  • Cook fish until it's opaque and flakes easily with a fork.
  • When microwaving, make sure there are no cold spots in food (where bacteria can survive). For best results, cover, stir, and rotate food for even cooking. If there's no turntable, rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking.
  • When reheating sauces, soups, and gravies, bring them to a boil. Heat other leftovers thoroughly to 165ºF.

Step #4: Chill thoroughly

  • Make sure the refrigerator temperature is 40ºF or below and 0ºF or below in the freezer. Verify these temperatures regularly using an appliance thermometer.
  • Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared foods and leftovers within 2 hours.
  • Never defrost or marinate food at room temperature. Use the refrigerator. You can also thaw foods in airtight packaging in cold water (change the water every 30 minutes, so the food continues to thaw). Or, thaw in the microwave, if you'll be cooking the food immediately.
  • Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator.
  • Don't over-stuff the refrigerator. Cold air must circulate to keep food safe.

Proper Cooking Temperatures and Times

Ground meat
Turkey, chicken: 170ºFVeal, beef, lamb, pork: 160ºF

BeefMedium: 160ºFWell done: 170ºF

VealMedium: 160ºFWell done: 170ºF

LambMedium: 160ºFWell done: 170ºF

Medium: 160ºFWell done: 170ºF

Chicken, whole: 180ºFTurkey, whole: 180ºFPoultry breasts, roasts: 170ºFStuffing (cooked alone or in bird): 165ºFDuck and goose: 180ºF

Fresh (raw): 160ºFPrecooked (to reheat): 140ºF

Shrimp: 5 minutes boilingFish: Till flakyClams: 5-10 minutes, steamedOysters: 5 minutes

More information:
If you have more questions or concerns about food safety, contact:

  • The Fight BAC! Web site at:
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline at (800) 535-4555 or (202) 720-3333 (Washington, DC area). The TTY number for the hearing impaired is (800) 256-7072.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Information Line at (888) SAFE FOOD.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent