Holidays can harbor food poisoning risks

It’s just about time for the first big holiday of the season known for family, friends and food. And although you might want to consider safety tips when it comes to family and friends (ha ha), you definitely will need to where food is involved.

Food poisoning occurs when you swallow food or water that contains bacteria, parasites, viruses or toxins made by these germs. Most cases of food poisoning are from common bacteria such as Staphylococcus or E. coli. Food poisoning can affect one person or a group of people who ate the same contaminated food. It commonly occurs at gatherings involving lots of people such as restaurants, picnics, holiday meals or parties.

Approximately 76 million people in the United States each year are sickened with food poisoning, and of these, up to 5,200 die. That works out to 144 people every minute getting food poisoning. Infants and elderly people are at the greatest risk, especially those with a serious medical condition, such as kidney disease or diabetes; those with a weakened immune system; or those who travel outside of the United States to areas where they are exposed to germs that cause food poisoning. Pregnant and breastfeeding women also need to be especially cautious.

Symptoms from the most common types of food poisoning usually start within two to six hours of eating the food and include abdominal cramps, diarrhea (which may be bloody), fever and chills, headache, nausea and vomiting and weakness. Seek medical attention immediately if these symptoms occur.

Nutrition and food safety experts from eXtension’s Families, Food and Fitness held a “healthy holiday” chat last November and offered holiday poison prevention tips. Here are a few of their suggestions, though you can read the entire transcript at

n Wash hands, cutting boards, utensils, dishes and kitchen countertops with hot, soapy water before preparing food. Rewash hands if they come in contact with raw meat, poultry or seafood. Cross-contamination occurs when foods that are eaten raw, such as salads, fruits and vegetables or when cooked foods become contaminated with bacteria from raw meat, poultry, seafood or their juices.

n Place food and leftovers back in the refrigerator within two hours (set a timer to help you remember).

n Do not leave dairy products (milk, sour cream, etc.) or mayonnaise-based foods out for more than 30 minutes.

n Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey. A whole turkey is safe-cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the bird. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

n Don’t store foods in the garage or on the porch, even if you think it’s cold enough. Use a cooler packed with ice to handle the refrigerator overflow. Place canned food or drinks in the ice chest, leaving room for turkey and more expensive perishable foods to go in the refrigerator.

n If the grandchildren are visiting, remember there’s a lot to reach for during family gatherings and holiday parties. And everything goes into mouths of young children. Spoiled food and alcohol are dangerous.

n Use leftover turkey and stuffing within three to four days. Remove the stuffing from the turkey before refrigeration. Reheat thoroughly to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit or until hot and steaming. Freeze what you cannot eat, and enjoy it at another time in the winter.

For more information, the United States Department of Agriculture offers a great website for turkey (and other) safety recommendations: If you are an iPhone or iPod Touch user, download the mobile app called 4-Day Throw Away produced in partnership with the University of Nebraska Lincoln-Extension and Iowa State University Extension.

Bottom line: If your turkey stays around longer than your relatives or in-laws, you may have concerns about food poisoning. Clean out the refrigerator.

Annie Lindsay is an assistant professor and exercise physiologist at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She conducts research and programming in adult fitness, physical activity, body image and childhood obesity prevention. Contact her at

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