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Don't get spooked by food-borne illnesses this Halloween

Date: 10/31/2013

Lisa McKee, New Mexico State University professor of Food Science and Technology, shares tips to avoid foodborne illnesses that can turn your Halloween into a nightmare.

Lisa McKee, NMSU professor of Food Science and Technology, shares tips to avoid foodborne illnesses that can turn your Halloween into a nightmare.

Whether you are buying ready-to-eat trays, cooking or baking this Halloween, there are ways to reduce the exposure to illnesses, such as salmonella or listeria.

Most people bake goodies for this time of year, but tasting the raw dough is not a good idea.

"Usually cookie dough and any kind of batter have raw eggs, and that's a good source of salmonella," McKee said.

For parties, it is convenient to buy cheese and meat or vegetable trays, but there are guidelines on how to serve them.

McKee explains that to avoid bacteria building in food, it is a good idea to take out just the amount that would be consumed in a two-hour window.

"The rule of thumb is to keep food at room temperature for no more than two hours, especially deli meats."

"One of the problems with deli meat products is listeria," McKee said. "And, listeria is cold tolerant, so the longer it sits out, the more of a problem it becomes. That's why you have to worry about the leftovers."

The leftovers from an older tray, McKee advises, should not go on to the new one, because then they will be out for four or five hours.

Vegetable leftovers, however, can be boiled and used in things like soup, since heat can destroy microorganisms.

McKee advises buying deli meats or vegetables from a source that you trust, and making sure you "don't put it in the car and run three more errands." It is best to buy it and go home where it can be kept cold.

"Those items should be bought last because you don't want to carry them around the whole time you are walking around the grocery store," she said.

If the conditions are optimal, bacteria can double every 20 minutes.

It also helps to have serving utensils so people don't have to use their fingers to take food out since everyone carries Staphylococcus, a bacteria that produces a toxin that will sicken people.

Providing serving utensils can also prevent cold and flu, which get spread from human to human, she added.

If you are preparing a meal at home with dishes that require eggs, such as quiches or meringue pies, McKee said such recipes should not be left outside at room temperature for more than one hour.

"Make sure your meal is cooked at the right temperature, chilled for the right amount of time and kept cool," she added. "The danger zone begins at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is typically the temperature of a refrigerator. So anything that is supposed to be cold should be kept below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and anything hot should be above 140 degrees Fahrenheit."

McKee said that foodborne illnesses can be acquired from any food that is not handled properly, but baked goods, such as cookies, and candy are less susceptible to bacteria.

For trick-or-treaters, McKee suggests knowing the area where you will ask for candy and going to houses of people you know.

Many people give out fruit or popcorn instead of candy for health-related reasons, but that could be dangerous.

"From a food safety perspective, if you are going to eat fruit, make sure it is washed thoroughly or peeling fruit can also help, but keep in mind that there is still a potential for foodborne illnesses. Prepackage or sealed products are better," she said.

For candies, McKee suggests making sure packages are completely sealed and checking the expiration dates.

Written by Angela Simental

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