Christmas Dinner -- Hold The Death

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This time of year brings all manner of helpful hints, like how to truss a turkey, or how to make your gingerbread men look like Scarlett Johansson (I made that second one up, but you know what I mean). Tips on avoiding food-borne illness are especially prevalent, as they should be -- an estimated 5,000 people in the U.S. die each year from eating something bad. It is bummer enough dying, but perish because of a tainted Christmas turkey and that is all you will ever be remembered for. Yes, it can happen to you -- but probably not if you follow these commonsense guidelines published by Consumer Reports in the January 2009 issue of ShopSmart.

1. Look at the date on the package. Although it's no guarantee the meat won't make you sick, choose a date with the most leeway.

2. Check packages for loose juice. It can be a source of bacteria. So if the meat packages are leaking, sticky, or wet, ask the butcher to cut a dry piece.

3. Triple-bag it. Put a plastic bag (get one from the produce aisle if you can't find one near the meat) over your hand and use it as a glove. Slip the bag back over the package of meat you select to prevent bacteria from contaminating you, your other groceries, or your fridge.

4. Sniff it. If meat smells off, don't buy it because it might not be fresh. (Even if it smells OK, however, that's no guarantee it's not loaded with bacteria.) And never rely on color alone since meat can be treated with carbon monoxide to make it look red and fresh.

5. Get meat ground fresh. Cuts of meat are held to a higher standard than ground. Choose cuts and have your trusted butcher grind them. The machine should be clean.

6. Look for firm fish. The flesh shouldn't have any gaps between the muscle fibers. Also sniff it; fish shouldn't smell fishy or like urine or ammonia. If you're buying whole fish, check the eyes; they should be clear, not cloudy.

7. Take along a cooler bag. Or ask to have meat and fish packed in a bag of ice so it stays cool. That will help slow the growth of bacteria.

--Lee Klein

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