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Risk of food poisoning increases at parties, buffets

Thursday, December 23, 2010 | 3:28 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Germs and bacteria don't take a holiday.

The threat of food poisoning increases with the number of parties, presenting the possibility that someone will eat germ-contaminated dishes.

Dangers exist, especially on buffet tables, when food is out for a long period of time and people tend to put their hands on it, said Andrew Clarke, associate professor of food science at MU's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 48 million incidents of food poisoning occur in the United States annually, with more than 128,000 hospitalizations.

Clarke listed the main causes of food poisoning and the solution:

  • Temperature abuse: Hot food should be kept hot, and cold food should be kept cold. Once food sits out too long at room temperature, germs have a greater chance to grow. Food should not sit out longer than two hours before returning it to the refrigerator. To prolong serving time, hosts should put hot food on a burner and cold foods on ice. Newly warmed foods should not be added to serving bowls already on the line.
  • Germ transmission: Double-dipping is a prime way that bacteria spreads. People dip food into a sauce, take a bite, then dip again. Instead, each serving dish should have individual utensils, which can limit the number of germs transferred to the food.
  • Cross contamination between raw food and cooked food: Make sure food is fully cooked, especially meat, poultry and seafood. Before serving,  meat should be thoroughly heated to ensure that bacteria has been eliminated.
  • Improper food storage: Leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours of serving and then fully reheated. Refrigerate leftovers no longer than four days. “If you anticipate that the food will be left for the next meal, freeze it,” Clarke said. He said it is better to defrost food than to refrigerate it for several days and then freeze it.

Food containing moisture also is more likely to have the risk of being contaminated. Dry food such as candy, cookies and nuts are less dangerous because they do not have the moist environment that supports organisms.

“I am most worried about entree items, meat and some of the side dishes, which are potential hazards of food poisoning because these things have to be in better temperature control,” Clarke said.

Properly dealing with food can prevent food poisoning, he said.

“It is not that hard to avoid food poisoning, but many people take unnecessary risks.”

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services provided additional advice: Keep hands and surfaces clean, and separate raw meat, poultry and fish and their juices from other foods.

“The holiday should be remembered for the good time that everyone had, not for an illness that could have been prevented,” said Margaret Donnelly, director of the department.

Symptoms of food poisoning include cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Mild symptoms can be treated at home, but if a case is serious, seek medical attention, Clarke said.

“Do not overlook the seriousness of food poisoning,” he said.

He also said that children are highly vulnerable and suggested that parents closely supervise what children eat.

“Observation and education are important for children in terms of holiday eating," he said.


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