HOUSTON – This holiday season, think twice before you do that late-night nibbling at the buffet table, particularly if it has been sitting out for a while. One bite of crab dip or deviled eggs gone bad, and you may be moving your holiday festivities to the bathroom — or the hospital. While food poisoning is often associated with summer barbecues and potato salad, the winter holiday season is just as risky. Stay healthy and safe this year with tips from infectious disease and nutrition experts from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).
Food poisoning or intestinal infection happens when bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins contaminate food. Harmful bacteria cause most outbreaks. Given the right conditions — an unwashed cutting board or serving dish left out too long — these bacteria may grow and multiply in your food, and make you sick to your stomach.
Most cases of foodborne disease caused by these bacteria feel similar to the "stomach flu" and may start a few hours after eating the offending dish or as long as nine days later.
“The difference (in the onset of food poisoning after eating the food) is the dose,” said Herbert L. DuPont, M.D., infectious disease and travel medicine expert at UTHealth School of Public Health. “The more bugs or toxins you swallow, the shorter the incubation period. The fewer you swallow, the longer the incubation period.”
Symptoms of foodborne disease can range from mild to serious and include:
The illness is not usually life-threatening for most healthy people. In fact, if you have had an unexplained case of diarrhea once this year, you have probably had a foodborne illness.
“But for debilitated or elderly persons, AIDS patients or infants, it can be life threatening,” DuPont said. “You have got to be careful when preparing foods for these individuals.”
Avoiding foodborne illness
Thankfully, most cases of foodborne disease can be avoided. By properly preparing and serving food, you can protect your guests and your reputation as a gracious and conscientious host.
Keep it clean
Properly defrost meat and cook it well
Defrosting of meat should never happen outside of the refrigerator, according to Shreela Sharma, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health.
“Defrost your meats by moving them to the refrigerator a day or two before you need to cook them. Never defrost on the counter or under hot water because that allows bacteria to grow,” said Sharma, who is also a faculty member in the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the School of Public Health.
Don’t set your slow cookers or pressure cookers on a delay start if contents include meat, she said. “Ideally what you want to do, for example, is cook your rice and beans and non-meat items in the cooker and when you come back home, throw in the chicken in the last 30 minutes.”
To test whether the meat is safely cooked, use a meat thermometer. Cook fresh pork to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit, poultry to at least 165 degrees F, and ground beef to 160 degrees F. To check, insert the thermometer in the middle of the cut of meat.
For poultry, insert the thermometer into the thickest, meatiest part of the thigh, being careful to avoid the bone. For other cuts of meat, consult your recipe or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chart or internal meat cooking temperatures.
Cook, then chill
Promptly refrigerate the foods you cook to keep harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying. If you have just made a huge vat of hot stew and its very presence in your refrigerator will heat up your colder foods, place the entire pot in a sink full of ice and water to speed cooling. Then, get it in the refrigerator as soon as possible.
Keep hot food hot, cold food cold
Food should not be left out for more than two hours in settings where the temperature runs from 40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a food thermometer to check. Some warming trays or chafing dishes will only hold food at 110-120 degrees F. Cold foods should be kept at 40 degrees F or colder. Put plates of cold food on ice if food is going to stay on the buffet table longer than two hours.
Keep the food coming
When preparing a buffet, keep portions small, so food doesn't sit out long. Store cold back-up dishes in the refrigerator and keep hot dishes in the oven, set at 200-250 degrees. Replace all empty food bowls and platters with new, fresh ones. Don't add new food to an old serving dish.
As a guest, avoid lukewarm foods if they are meant to be hot or cold. Also, steer clear of foods like raw meats, eggs, fish and undercooked meats. Food containing a mix of several ingredients, such as potato salad, egg salad and tuna salad are often risky if they are not kept cold.
Open that food gift early
Be careful when serving mail-order food gifts that include meat, fish or other perishables like cheese, fruit and cheesecake. Refrigerate these gifts immediately when you receive them. Also, if the food is labeled, "keep refrigerated," make sure it is still in a chilled state when it arrives.
If you do get sick...
If you feel sick from something you ate and your symptoms are severe – such as continuous diarrhea and vomiting or blood in the stool – see a doctor or get emergency help. This is especially important for those who are immune-compromised, diabetic, heart patients, or have medical conditions that make you more vulnerable to food poisoning.
For mild cases of food poisoning, drink plenty of liquids and food with salt to replace or prevent dehydration, DuPont said. He recommends eating bland foods such as saltine crackers, applesauce and bananas.
For other tips, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture website for the basics of handling food safely.
-Written by Anissa Anderson Orr and Hannah Rhodes