Holiday food safety can prevent foodborne illness

Food-poisoning bacteria love cooked foods that are high in protein.
Food-poisoning bacteria love cooked foods that are high in protein.
Last Updated: 
February 9, 2011

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The kitchen can be the most popular room during the holidays and eating one of the most beloved traditions. It's a good time to remember that food-poisoning bacteria also love cooked foods that are high in protein, such as meats, chili, pasta, salad and custard.

If these foods sit at lukewarm temperatures for more than two to three hours, bacteria can start to grow.

What happens when you eat "spoiled" food? "You probably will not feel sick immediately," said Carolyn Raab, Oregon State University Extension foods and nutrition specialist. "It takes time for the bacteria and their toxins to work in the intestines. Some bacteria can make you sick in just two hours. Others won’t strike for several days."

Sometimes, symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea last just 24 hours. Others last for a week or more. Side effects of botulism, the most harmful type of food poisoning, can last for years. Some people may be sicker than others because their immune systems are weak. Pregnant women, infants and young children, older adults and people with cancer, AIDS and other diseases are more at risk.

It’s important to see a doctor if symptoms are severe or last a long time.

A common concern about food-borne illness is when you don't know what food eaten during the previous 24 hours could have been a source of bacteria. "Rare or undercooked foods from animals – meats, poultry, eggs, seafood – can be a source of harmful bacteria. So is raw, unpasteurized milk. Adequate heating kills most bacteria and their toxins," Raab said.

Another common cause of food-borne illness is cross-contamination, which spreads bacteria from raw meat, seafood and poultry to other foods that aren’t cooked before eating. This can happen when lettuce is put on a cutting board that was not cleaned after raw chicken is cut up.

Here are basic rules to keep food safe:

Keep it clean: Wash your hands with soap and water before handling food, especially after using the toilet or changing diapers. Wash counters, cutting boards and utensils with soap and water after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. After washing, wipe or spray with diluted bleach (one teaspoon in one quart of water). Don’t sneeze on food. Put bandages on hand cuts. Keep insects, rodents and pets away.

Cook it well: Cook meat, poultry, fish and eggs thoroughly. This is how they should look: Ground meat is brownish (cook to 160 degrees). Poultry meat is light or dark brown and its juice is clear (cook to 165 degrees). White fish looks milky and flakes easily with a fork. Egg whites are white and firm. Drink pasteurized milk and fruit juice that has been heat-treated to kill harmful bacteria.

Cool it soon: Keep hot foods HOT and cold foods COLD. Cool big pots of soups and stews by pouring them into shallow pans (two to three inches high). Refrigerate soon.

Several publications on food safety are available online from Oregon State University Extension Family and Community Health Food Safety website. Choose from English, Spanish and Russian versions.

Author: Judy Scott
Source: Carolyn Raab