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Say 'Aaah' | Before You Bite

Don't Let Holiday Foods Turn Dangerous

November 20, 2000|Phil Lempert

The big food holidays are right around the corner, and that means family get-togethers, company parties, visiting old friends--and food poisoning.

If you think that food-borne illnesses are unlikely to hit you this year, consider these statistics: Food-borne bugs are responsible for about 76 million illnesses annually, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. There are more than 2,000 known diseases that can be transmitted through foods. Although these numbers may seem staggering enough, the CDC says that many more incidents of food-borne illness go unreported, because the symptoms are often confused with the flu or other stomach upsets.

Most of us already know the basics of food safety. During the holidays, though, we cook for larger groups, dine on different foods and have more leftovers. And our kitchens can be chaotic, filled with guests who you wish would all go into the living room.

At this point, you may be thinking: I'm smart, careful and have heard all this food safety stuff before. But consider this: A new study in the November issue of the Journal of Food Protection found that several groups are more likely to eat high-risk foods and less likely to handle food safely--young adults ages 18 to 25, people with college educations and higher incomes and men of all ages.


So before the holiday festivities begin, here is a refresher course in food safety.

Many holiday foods and recipes are more susceptible to food-borne illness than the foods we eat normally. Some examples would be raw unpasteurized oysters, egg drinks, bread puddings [except those made with pasteurized eggs or egg substitutes], steak tartare and soft-boiled eggs (the later example a popular choice for the morning after the wild holiday party).

Salmonella, campylobacter, botulism, listeria and E. coli are the bacteria most responsible for food-borne illness. Although some of us think we can tell if a food has "gone bad," remember that bacteria cannot be seen, smelled or tasted; and it is always better to discard questionable foods.

If you think you have a food-borne illness, consult your doctor immediately. Some people may exhibit symptoms immediately, while in others it may take days for symptoms to appear. The symptoms for most such illnesses are similar: a sudden onset of fever, gripping or severe abdominal pain or cramps, nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite and diarrhea. Salmonella is found primarily in undercooked poultry, eggs, beef, pork, baked goods and unpasteurized dairy products.

Campylobacter is found in raw poultry and shellfish, untreated water and in the intestinal tracts of many animals including poultry, cattle, hogs, sheep and some wild birds. Symptoms can appear two to 10 days after the food has been eaten. This bacterium thrives in low-oxygen refrigerated environments.

Botulism, one of the most deadly food-borne illnesses, is found in rotting vegetables, in shellfish, in feces and carcasses of birds and animals, and in a variety of other places.

Foods like meatloaf, pot pies and stews that are left overnight at room temperature can also harbor this bacteria.


Botulism affects the nervous system and symptoms include dry mouth, double vision, nausea, vomiting, cramps, muscle paralysis and difficulty in breathing. Don't eat foods from containers that are leaking or bulging. Avoid canned foods that have odd odors or appearances. And be sure to refrigerate leftovers--and all foods--in covered shallow containers no later than two hours after serving.

Listeria is found in the intestines of animals, in milk, leafy vegetables and food-processing environments. It is also found in soft ripened and pasteurized cheeses, milk, ice cream, raw and processed meats, seafood and pre-cut and packaged vegetables. To prevent against this bacteria, avoid dairy products made from unpasteurized milk, thoroughly cook and reheat meats and poultry, and always abide by expiration dates on foods.

E. coli is the most well-known, and feared, food bacterium. It is found in contaminated water, raw or rare beef and unpasteurized milk. It is one of the few bacterium that can actually be passed from person to person. It is also one of the easiest to prevent by cooking all foods to the correct temperature and storing them below 40 degrees.

There are many free food safety resources available during this holiday season.

One of the best is the Web site of the Partnership for Food Safety:

Another old reliable information service is the Butterball Turkey Talk Line. The service, open during November and most of December, offers assistance from nutritionists and home economists in English and Spanish ([800] 323-4848).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food information line is (888) SAFEFOOD, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline is (800) 535-4555.


Phil Lempert hosts a national syndicated radio show and is the food correspondent for NBC's "Today" show. He can be reached at His column appears the first and third Mondays of the month.

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