Simple steps to avoid a holiday meal becoming a health care disaster

TAVARES – It’s that timeless holiday tradition: the enormous meal cooked for the entire family, for relatives you haven’t seen all years, for whoever they bring along, old and new faces alike. When it comes to a family gathering for the holidays, the festively decorated dinner table awaits everyone.

Good news for the family. Good news for the ones who love to cook.

Not so good news — sometimes, anyway — for area hospitals, which can get awfully busy … assuming the chefs in the family don’t take some simple precautions before they start the meal.

Preparing a meal can be fun and creative. But it can also be risky if people don’t take steps to ensure their food is safely stored before they begin their cooking.  With that in mind, the Lake County Health Department is issuing some helpful advice to county residents about the importance of safe food preparation and storage, and how it can prevent the possibility of foodborne illnesses ruining that otherwise cheerful family meal.

Cooking is fun -- but are you making sure your kitchen stays clean while you're preparing food?

Some of their advice sounds so simple it almost doesn’t seem necessary to point out. Just the same, the Lake County Health Department’s environmental health director, Paul Butler, said it all begins with that sage advice from your mother: clean those hands.

 “Lake County residents should wash their hands and counter tops thoroughly before and after preparing foods to help eliminate bacteria,” Butler said.  “Foods should be cooked at the appropriate temperature and leftovers should be stored properly.”

So what needs to be done to keep that generous meal from ruining the entire day for your guests, not to mention their appetites and otherwise good health? The agency’s recommendations for those preparing the meal in the kitchen include:

  • Properly washing your hands — and don’t forget those fingernails — before and after handling any food.
  • Storing food properly, with adequate refrigeration temperatures or hot holding temperatures.  A safe refrigeration temperature is less than 41 degrees Fahrenheit, while a safe hot holding temperature is greater than 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
  •  Never letting hot or cold foods sit at room temperature for more than two hours.
  •  Ensuring you’ve taken steps to have a safe cooling of foods, by getting meals to less than 41 degrees Fahrenheit within a four-hour time period.
  •  Avoiding cross contamination — that includes from uncooked meat or salad ingredients, for example.
  •  Proper cleaning and sanitizing of eating and cooking utensils, including work areas in the kitchen and any equipment used to prepare the foods.
  •  Making sure your food or equipment isn’t someplace where flies, roaches and other insects can get to it first, before your guests.
  •  Serving food on clean plates, which means not letting juices from raw meat, poultry and seafood come in contact with cooked food.
  •  Replacing serving plates often, and trying to avoid putting fresh food on serving plates that have been sitting out at room temperature for a while.
  •  Storing foods in shallow containers to refrigerate or freeze them.

  Taking these simple steps, the Lake County DOH says, means you’re not likely to be driving a relative to the emergency room an hour after the meal is over.

For more information about food safety, visit

To report a food or waterborne illness complaint, visit and click on the Foodborne Illness Complaint Form.

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Freelining with Mike Freeman: Of Sweat and Snow

ORLANDO – There’s something particularly weird about watching heavy snow falling, and seeing people outside heavily bundled up in thick jackets and wool hats, and you’re standing in a T-shirt and shorts — sweating profusely.

Maybe that’s partially because this happened to me at 6:30 in the morning, and a part of me was still waking up.  Mostly it was flashback time for me, to all the blizzards I endured growing up in Fall River, Massachusetts —  including that Big Daddy of them all, the Blizzard of ’78, which is still the snow storm to compare all of them to, in my lifetime, anyway. Folks in Alaska, Minnesota and North Dakota may have their own distinctive memories to substitute.

Still, going up and down on a Stair Master at my local gym so early in the morning, watching the small TV screen attached to it broadcast blizzard coverage on all the national and local news shows, was a strange experience indeed. I was warm, even quite sweaty, but it wasn’t warm outside – odd for Florida in December, where air conditioners are still known to be running in the middle of the day.

But it was not only freezing outside, but actually below freezing – and people coming into the gym looked like travelers headed to some arctic destination. This is a big change from the usual Orlando mornings, where more than a few folks show up in shorts and change clothes after they shower.

Why do people love Florida in the winter? Cold spells don't last and the pool is always calling out to you.

Watching the news as I climbed stair after stair, I noticed that camera crews truly relish a hefty blizzard in the same way that our own local meteorologists seem thrilled at any hint of a hurricane coming on. For most of us, hurricanes are scary and unpredictable – and for that matter, so are blizzards. Ever gotten caught driving in one and found yourself stranded on a highway in huge drifts of snow? I know people who have. For a year in 1995, I lived in a small three room cabin on the picturesque shores of Long Pond, a lake in E. Freetown, Massachusetts, where at least one blizzard – and a few lighter storms – knocked out my power, taking with it such niceties as electricity, running water and an operating toilet. I’ve lived through two hurricanes in Central Florida, and know what it feels like to have your power go off and your air conditioning shut down in 90-plus weather, and then to feel the heat seep in ever more oppressively as you sit there waiting for the storm to pass.

But I also know what it feels like to sit in a small cabin during a blizzard and, power gone, feel the cold seep in when it’s below freezing outside and the snow keeps falling. I think I’ll take the heat and humidity any day.

“It’s supposed to rain this afternoon,” my dad told me on the day after Christmas, when I called him to chat. He still lives in the Fall River home I was born and raised in.

“But we’re getting a blizzard tonight,” he sighed.

At age 77, I’d figured my father had long since abandoned the idea that blizzards were pretty to look at or fun to play in, and just a complete and total hassle and complete endurance test. But he’s a creature of habit and loves his home, so he hasn’t followed me down to Orlando.

People I know locally who grew up in a heavy snow state have asked me if I’d watched the news reports of the big blizzard, and more than a few have said, “There’s no way I could ever move back up north.” Some of these folks are the same ones who, about mid-July, say “I hate Florida. The heat is terrible. I can’t stand it.” Ah, the grass is always a tad bit greener …

For me, the bitterly cold (I thought, anyway) walk from my car in the gym parking lot to the building itself  was enough to convince me that short cold spells in Orlando are better than months of this stuff up north, even if my friends in Fall River call me in May, June, and sometimes August to brag about their temperatures in the low-70s with no humidity. Is there a single place in the world with perfect weather year round? I know San Diego likes to brag, but I’ve been there when it’s unpleasantly cold in February.

Florida will warm up, and we’ll toss off our sweaters – probably within days. Fall River will dig out. It all depends on what we’re looking for in life.

As for me, watching the excitement of the northern meteorologists as they report blizzard conditions next to a highway with no traffic on it is always a happy reminder of why I moved in the first place – and of why Florida, high home foreclosure rate and all, will eventually regain its popularity as the place for t-shirts when the north needs plows.

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Polk County cracks down on gun owners — a specific type, though.

BARTOW – In a state where gun rights are strongly protected, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office is taking aim at a particular group and hoping to remove any guns they might have in their homes – even if the gun owner feels the weapon is needed to protect himself and his family.

“Whether you think you need it for protection or not, it doesn’t matter, and we have no sympathy for you,” said Scott H. Wilder, director of communications for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Weapons owned by convicted felons are the target of a new tips program launched by the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

The group in question, though, may not draw much sympathy from the public: convicted felons, who face stiff penalties if they’re caught in possession of any weapons. The only exception is when the felon has had his rights restored by the convicting state.
“That’s just the punishment of our system,” Wilder said.  “Had you not committed that original criminal offense, you could own that gun and protect your family. If you haven’t had your rights restored, that’s life.”

Federal law prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from ever possessing any firearm or ammunition. It specifically applies to anyone convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment. 

Even after they’re released from jail, the felon is banned from owning a firearm either inside or outside of their home, and the federal punishment can run as high as 10 years in prison.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office is trying to crack down on felons who own or use guns, and is working with Heartland Crimestoppers, Inc., on a new program that rewards anonymous callers who alert law enforcement to anyone with an illegally possessed firearm. Citizens are encouraged to turn in felons with guns, which Wilder said is a reoccurring problem for the sheriff’s office.

“We run across it all the time,” he said. “The one that provided the impetus for this was a guy who shot and seriously injured two of our deputies. He was a convicted felon, and he shouldn’t have been in possession of this weapon.”

Anyone with a tip to provide can call Heartland Crimestoppers at 800-226-TIPS (8477) and report a person known to be illegally possessing a gun. 

If an arrest is made and a gun gets recovered from the information that was provided, the tipster will be eligible for a $500 reward. 

All calls remain confidential and no one at the sheriff’s office will ask a caller for their name or phone number.  Callers are not required to testify in court on these cases.

“We know that guns don’t commit violent crimes, people commit violent crimes,” Judd said. “And we know that there are plenty of folks out there who know who the bad guys are in their area. They know if they have guns or not.

“Give us an anonymous call, tell us who and where they are,” Judd added. “Give us as much information as you can, and we will investigate.  If we find someone illegally possessing a gun, we will arrest them and give the person who gave us the information $500 cash.  It’s that simple.  We want convicted felons who illegally possess guns off the streets.”

Wilder said this program was modeled after gun buyback programs that have been used by other county sheriff’s offices. In those instances, people who turned in their guns to the sheriff’s office – no questions asked – got vouchers for food, gasoline or other goods in exchange.

In this case, Wilder said, they’re offering a cash reward for tips.

“This is sort of a play off that type of program,” he said. “We don’t believe that guns in and of themselves are the bad thing. Guns can be used to defend lawful people and protect your property and yourself.”

The goal here is to crack down on felons alone, he added.

“If you know of a felon in possession of a gun, or a gun that has had its serial numbers filed off, those are the ones we want to know about,” Wilder said.

It doesn’t matter if the convicted felon isn’t using the gun to commit crimes, Wilder added.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re going to use that gun to rob a bank or not,” he said. “The mere possession of it as a felon is what’s illegal, even if they’re not using that gun to commit crimes. It’s a fairly steep penalty, and I know the court system takes it very seriously.  It’s a big deal.”

Since the program was first announced on Oct. 28, it’s led to one arrest, Wilder said.

“We’ve had a number of tips, and we’ve already paid one out,” he said. “One of the tips  led to us making an arrest for things other than simply owning an illegal gun.”

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