It may be one of the most treasured traditions of the holidays. After the big family meal is finished, holiday celebrants can be seen making little trips back to the dinner table for hours to get a little nibble of this or that, but all too often, unwanted guests on the food have been all too happy to make their presence known in uncomfortable ways.
Rob Perry, Clermont County Director of Environmental Health, said that leaving the holiday ham or turkey out can lead to big problems for some snackers.
“The greatest issue would be holding the temperature of food,” said Perry. “People have these big turkey dinners and end up leaving them out on the table for hours and people come by and pick off the turkey and get another little helping of dressing. That’s the single greatest risk to a family of food-born illness. As a kid, that’s exactly what we would do; have a big dinner and let it set on the table all day. Knowing what we know now, that was not the best thing to do. You can’t hold food out at room temperature for too long.”
"Ideally, an hour after the meal is fine, but my official answer is to put it back in the refrigerator as soon as possible," said Perry. "An hour out is reasonable, but two hours is unreasonable. It depends on the food, the temperature of your house and if the food had bacteria on it before it was cooked."
Bacteria, said Perry, is the main cause of problems when food is left out for too long. Given that rich feeding ground of cool turkey or mashed potatoes, bacteria can begin to produce at an alarming rate. That, said Perry, leads to a range of illnesses. Even re-warming your food can be risky, depending on what you have growing on it.
"If you warm it up in the microwave, if you heat it to 165 degrees, you'll get a real effective bacteria kill," said Perry. "It will kill any bacteria that started to grow. It wouldn't make you sick - you'd still eat the bacteria, but it would be their carcasses. But, there are some types of bacteria that would still cause a problem. There are two types of bacteria that make people sick. There is incubating bacteria like salmonella that you eat and it lives in your system until it reaches sufficient numbers to make you sick. Those are killed when you reheat the food. The other type, toxigenic bacteria, they basically excrete stuff into the food, and that excrement has toxigenic properties - there is poison in it. You take that food, reheat the food, kill the bacteria, but you don't destroy the toxins they left behind. Even though you kill them, you don't destroy the poison."
After eating contaminated food, the results of your culinary daredevilism may not be known for a few days, said Perry. Some bacteria may effect you quickly, while others may take days to make you ill. Some may cause major symptoms, while others only a little. And the symptoms themselves could vary, depending on the type of bacteria present, and often imitate other illnesses.
"A lot of the symptoms of food-born illness mimic the symptoms of other illnesses that circulate during the winter," said Perry. "A flu bug may be an intestinal virus, or food poisoning. There are symptoms like diarrhea. Some create headaches, some create fever. The classic symptoms are retching, vomiting, diarrhea, and that sort of thing. Generally, food-born illnesses come and go without intensive medical treatment. But you have to play it by ear. If you have an excessively high fever, you should seek medical treatment. If you vomit or have diarrhea until you are dehydrated, you need to seek medical treatment."
Although it seems simple, Perry said that one little step can often mean the difference in getting sick or enjoying your time with family.
"As people prepare their food, they should certainly wash their hands," said Perry. "That's the single most important thing you can do to prevent all sorts of illness. Also, everybody, before they sit down for dinner, needs to wash their hands as well."