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Fábregas: Kitchen a cornucopia of germs at Thanksgiving

Luis Fábregas
| Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Every time I cut raw chicken in the kitchen, my wife gets a little bit freaked out.

She instructs me to remove anything and everything around the cutting board, afraid that pink juice from the chicken will touch something else on the counter.

“The bananas! Don't let that chicken touch the bananas!” my wife has told me on more than one occasion.

Truth is, I tend to be pretty careless when I have free reign of the kitchen. When I'm cooking, which I do often and enjoy tremendously, my mind is on the food I'll be savoring, not on the germs that can derail my experience and ruin my meal.

I am militant about hand-washing, but who has time to worry about flying droplets of raw chicken juice? That's especially true this time of year, when we absentmindedly prep a turkey on the same counter as the green bean casserole (not that I like or would dare make green bean casserole, but you get the picture).

A quick conversation with Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at UPMC, reminded me that foodborne illnesses are not just an opportunity to tell jokes about blowing your biscuits or going to Europe with Ralph and Earl in a Buick.

Adalja said that nasty pink juice — also present in the turkey bags many of us will handle Thursday — is a carnival of germs.

“If I went to the grocery store right now and stuck a swab into the juice inside the bags, I would be able to culture bacteria,” he said. “It's everywhere.”

The culprits include salmonella, which cause 1 million illnesses every year in the United States, and campylobacter, one of the most common causes of nausea and diarrhea, Adalja said. Both germs can cause cramping, abdominal pain and fever.

Although most people recover and can tolerate a short-term illness, the bacteria can be harmful to the very young and the very old. A recent salmonella outbreak linked to imported cucumbers sickened more than 800 people and killed four, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That's why it's important to make sure we keep the cutting board — with the tomatoes we'll put in the salad — away from the raw turkey, Adalja told me, making me feel guilty that I often ignore my wife's nagging.

“You really have to be careful when you're preparing food to avoid cross-contamination. It's not just that you need to cook things all the way through — it's that you have to make sure that you handle them appropriately when they're not cooked. That's one of the biggest risks with the cutting boards,” Adalja said.

The germ-fest extends beyond food in the kitchen, Adalja said. As grandmothers, uncles and cousins gather for a festive meal, it's likely they'll bring with them some of the viruses that circulate at this time of the year.

“Anytime you have a mixing of people, you're going to find diseases spread,” he said. “A lot of time, people link vomiting to the food but it may be because your Uncle Joe from Detroit is harboring a stomach virus and is not washing his hands.”

The lesson? Wash your hands. And listen to your spouse.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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