ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A year ago Thanksgiving, roughly 800 to 1,100 people headed to Golden Ponds Restaurant and Party House for Thanksgiving dinner. Before long, 260 of them experienced stomach pain, cramping and diarrhea in what is quite likely the largest recent outbreak of food-borne illness in Monroe County.
The source of the outbreak: gravy that was served at an unacceptably low temperature that allowed a notorious food-poisoning bacteria to flourish, said John Ricci, spokesman for the Monroe County Department of Public Health.
It bears reminding that the same situation can occur in home kitchens as well as restaurants.
We reached out to three experts for their tips on reducing the risk of food-borne illnesses during the holidays: Robert Gravani, professor of food science at Cornell University; Ricci, who has worked for the health department for 33 years; and Paul Vincent Nunes, a partner in Underberg and Kessler in Rochester, a lawyer who works on foodborne illness cases.
At your home
Gravani summarizes four steps to food safety — clean, separate, cook and chill.
“I’m not here to create paranoia; I’m here to create awareness," he said.
Clean: Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during and after preparing food. Don’t forget to wash your utensils as well.
Separate: When cooking and grocery shopping, keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and their juices away from each other and from other foods.
Nunes adds that washing turkey spreads the bacteria from raw meat to the sink, counters and more and is generally not recommended.
Cook: The only way to tell whether food is safely cooked is to use a food thermometer. Turkey, like all other poultry, requires a temperature of 165°F.
Cornell studies have shown that many people do not own or use a food thermometer, even though it is the only reliable way to measure temperatures, Gravani said.
“You cannot safely tell if a food is cooked by color or texture or any other imagined way," he said.
Nunes adds that food should be tested in multiple places to ensure the proper temperature.
Chill: Bacteria can multiply rapidly if left at room temperature or in the "danger zone" between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F. Never leave perishable food out for more than two hours. Never thaw foods (such as a frozen turkey) on the counter, because bacteria multiply quickly in the parts of the food that reach room temperature. Divide large amounts of food into smaller containers so that they cool more quickly.
Nunes advises against storing food outside or in a garage due to temperature variations. He often marinates a turkey in a cooler in his garage, but checks the temperature frequently, adding ice if necessary.
Gravani recommended that people download an app called USDA Food Keeper on their smartphones. Created by Cornell University, the Food Marketing Institute and the USDA, it offers a wealth of information on food safety.
At other people's homes
All three men acknowledged the delicate balance between being a polite guest and watching out for the safety of themselves and others.
"The worst place is potluck gatherings," Nunes said with a laugh. Some hosts leave perishable food like cold cuts, cheeses and casseroles out at room temperature for hours on end. "This is not good."
Ricci once noticed a tray of cold cuts — warm to the touch — about to be served at a gathering at a park. He advised the host that they shouldn't be served. They weren't.
Gravani has noticed home cooks taking a platter of raw meat to a grill and leaving it there with the idea of returning the cooked meat to that platter. He has been known to quietly walk the plate into the kitchen, wash it thoroughly, and return it to the grill.
While situations such Golden Ponds makes headlines, Gravani generally considers restaurants to be safe.
“I think the system works very, very well," he said. Given the millions of restaurant meals eaten every year, the number of illnesses are relatively low, he said.
“On the whole restaurants get it right way more often that they do it wrong," Ricci said. “If a restaurant was unsafe in our view, we would close it. We take no pride in doing that, but we will and do do that when necessary.”
Gravani advises diners to look for subtle cues: the organization of the restaurant, how things seem to be going and the cleanliness of the facility.
"Sometimes — not always — those are indicative of what will be going on in the back," he said. "It’s very, very difficult to tell.”
He said he has felt uncomfortable enough at a restaurant to get up and leave.
Ricci said diners are wise to pay attention to the temperature of the food.
"Cold food should be cold and hot food should be hot," he said.
He advises people not to eat food that is lukewarm, or to call it to an attention of a server or manager.
“They may not like it at the time — but I don’t think any one of them want to be a headline," he said.
Follow Tracy Schuhmacher on Twitter: @RahChaChow