Food safety, from farm to fork

Risk of foodborne illness may rise during the holidays

To minimize the risk of foodborne illness, turkey should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 F, according to food-safety experts. Credit: USDA-FSISAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the holiday season approaches, millions of Americans will be preparing, cooking, eating and cleaning up holiday feasts enjoyed with family and friends. With all the hustle and bustle that surrounds these events, sometimes food safety can take a back seat.

During the holidays, more people are cooking at home — and for larger numbers of people, which means more food, a larger variety of foods at the same time, and often more complex recipes. All of this creates unique food-safety challenges not necessarily encountered on a daily basis. Plus, the fact that one in six people become sick from a foodborne illness each year makes it a perfect time of year to remind folks about the importance of safe food handling for good health.

This year, the Partnership for Food Safety Education is sponsoring a campaign, called "The Story of Your Dinner," to support all the home cooks out there in getting a safe and healthy meal on the table.

"The Story of Your Dinner" focuses on the many food safety steps taken from farm and processing to retail and finally in the home kitchen — that last stop in the food safety chain. It is really as simple as following the four key food-safety practices of Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill.

Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often. Remember, you should wash your hands with hot water and soap for at least 20 seconds as you get ready to prepare food, when you change tasks, after coughing or sneezing or using the restroom, or any time your hands become contaminated. During this time, consider drying your hands with a paper towel rather than a cloth towel to prevent the spread of bacteria.

Another tip when it comes to "clean" — you do not need to "wash/rinse" your turkey before cooking. Rinsing under running water increases the risk of cross contamination, as water droplets splatter onto kitchen surfaces that then may not be properly cleaned and sanitized. You should carefully un-package your turkey, and if you must, just pat it with paper towels, being sure to dispose of these properly.

Separate: Keep raw products separated from ready-to-eat foods to prevent contamination. This includes during storage in the refrigerator and during preparation. Keep raw meats in containers that will prevent juices from dripping on other foods. When preparing foods, consider using separate cutting boards for raw and ready-to-eat items and/or prepping these foods at different times.

Cook: Cook to the recommended safe internal temperatures and use a food thermometer to check that the correct temperature has been reached. For turkey, the correct temperature is 165 F. You always can cook to a higher temperature, but this is the minimum that should be reached.

Chill: Refrigerate or freeze foods promptly, especially for leftovers. Leftover items should be refrigerated within two hours, so put everyone to work cleaning up before sitting down to dessert!

To learn more, visit the Partnership for Food Safety Education website. The site has links to many recipes you might want to try, as well as activity placemats for kids, a turkey hand and health activity, and a video about the chain of prevention from farm to table. 

The last thing anyone wants is to become sick over the holidays. Even if you have been doing this for a long time and no one has ever gotten sick, it is better to be safe than sorry — so remember to Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill for a great holiday season!

Sharon McDonald is a registered dietitian, senior extension educator and food safety specialist for Penn State Extension. More information on food safety and nutrition can be found on Penn State Extension's Food & Health webpage at

Last Updated November 18, 2016