How to prevent food poisoning over the holidays:
It is 1a.m., a house full of out-of-town holiday guests and to everyone’s dismay, there is a line for the bathroom as several family members suddenly develop vomiting and diarrhea. Not the picture of holiday bliss, especially when mom says it was the turkey, or the cream puffs, or maybe it was the left over Chinese food. Well, maybe your mom wouldn’t start placing blame, but I know mine would.
Given the preponderance of holiday foods and leftovers, this is a time of year to be especially careful with food preparation and handling.
One of the most common causes of food poisoning is Staphlococcus aureus, more commonly called “staph”. This is the same bacteria that cause skin infections. Many of us are colonized with staph, meaning we carry it around with us, but have no symptoms. When infected individuals prepare food without proper hand hygiene, it is possible to contaminate the food they are preparing.
When the contaminated food is left at room temperature, the bacteria can grow and secrete a toxin called staph enterotoxin (that is a mouthful). It is well named however, as “entero” refers to the intestine and “toxin” refers to poison, so together it means that enterotoxin is an “intestinal poison”. This poison causes abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Staphylococcal food poisoning occurs most often in foods that require hand preparation, such as:
- Salads such as egg, tuna, ham, chicken, potato and macaroni
- Sandwich spreads
- Milk and dairy products
- Meats and poultry can also be affected
- And last but not least, those delicious custard and cream-filled pastries such as éclairs, cream puffs and pies.
The toxin is heat stable, meaning reheating to a high temperature may kill the bacteria, but it does not destroy the formed toxin in the food, so consuming food contaminated with staph enterotoxin will still cause illness.
Symptoms of Staph food poisoning usually occur in 2 to 6 hours after eating the contaminated food and include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea. Depending on how your body reacts to the toxin and the amount of contaminated food that was eaten, symptoms may last from several hours up to 2 or 3 days.
According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the following steps will help decrease the incidence of staph food poisoning:
- Wash hands and under fingernails vigorously with soap and water before handling and preparing food.
- Do not prepare food if you have a nose or eye infection.
- Do not prepare or serve food for others if you have wounds or skin infections on your hands or wrists.
- Keep kitchens and food-serving areas clean and sanitized.
- If food is to be stored longer than two hours, keep hot foods hot (over 140°F) and cold foods cold (40°F or under).
- Store cooked food in a wide, shallow container and refrigerate as soon as possible.
I hope these tips help you have a safe and happy holiday season!