Food Poisoning For The Holidays?

By Cassidy Hobbs Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston County Cooperative Extension

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are 48 million cases of foodborne illness each year in the United States. Of those 48 million cases, there are about 128,000 hospitalizations, and approximately 3,000 preventable deaths as a result of foodborne illness costing $76 billion a year.

Most people refer to foodborne illness as “food poisoning” and it seems that almost everyone who experiences ‘food poisoning’ blames the last restaurant they visited. When it comes to holiday gatherings and family feasts, if anyone experiences digestive discomforts in the coming days, they claim to have a “stomach bug.”

The truth is, you can experience foodborne illness from eating foods prepared at home as well as restaurants, and there are a variety of types of foodborne illness. Some forms are a result of a bacteria such as when you experience E. Coli or Salmonella. Norovirus and Hepatitis A are both forms of foodborne illness as a result of a virus. So how can you prevent giving the gift of foodborne illness for the holidays?

Step one: wash your hands. Hands are the number one vehicle of contamination. Step two: clean and sanitize before you cook because you never know what may have dripped on your counter or contacted your cutting board and knife. Step three: keep your foods separate. Wash and prep all of your vegetables first, then prepare your meats, and be sure to always wash your hands after handling raw meats! We don’t want any cross-contamination to occur before your family gathering. Step four: cook foods to the proper internal temperature. Common food internal temperatures can be found below:

  • Fully-cooked foods prepared by a commercial processor (such as a hot dog or frozen lasagna): 135 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Fish and whole cuts of meat such as steaks and chops: 145 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Cuts of meat that have been injected as well as ground beef: 155 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Poultry and wild game: 165 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Leftovers: 165 degrees Fahrenheit (this is to prevent you from getting sick from any cross contamination that may have occurred when you weren’t looking or while in the fridge)

Once your delicious meals have been served, put the leftovers away quickly into the refrigerator within 2 hours. Your family has left food out for years and nobody has died, yes I know. That is great, but remember how usually after a gathering, someone gets “the stomach bug?” That would be a form of food poisoning. Foodborne illness, depending on the form you encounter, can have different onset times. Some forms may only take a few hours, some may take a few days, and some may not show up for a week or so.

So why should you put leftovers up within 2 hours? Food is never sterile. The bacteria is not fully cooked away, it is reduced to low enough levels that your immune system fights it off. Bacteria grow best between 41 degrees and 135 degrees, and leaving food out at room temperature is perfect for reproducing. Bacteria grows exponentially in this “temperature danger zone” and will double in as little as twenty minutes. Two hours is the length of time that researchers have identified as the maximum amount of time to allow cooked food to sit in the “temperature danger zone” producing bacteria that your immune system can handle, assuming you have no immune-compromising conditions.