Avoid Being Bad Santa: Important Holiday Food Safety Tips

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Holiday food safety is a topic that rarely comes up in conversation. The USDA believes that should change -- and fast.

The holidays are here and if your office has a gift exchange, you don't want to be the one responsible for giving your colleagues salmonella, E. coli, listeria or campylobacter. That last one is a mouthful and all of them can be the wrong gift if offices don't practice proper food safety during their holiday parties. The same also applies to house parties during this time of year.

No one wants to be "Bad Santa" and top the film role of Billy Bob Thornton. No one.

"You definitely don't want to be the cause of your whole office getting diarrhea or vomiting for a few days after the party," says Kristina Beaugh, a public affairs specialist for the US Department of Agriculture.

How that's possible that people get sick in an office party comes from the failure to keep cold food cold, and hot food hot, Beaugh says.

When you have an office party, of course there's going to be food there. When you're celebrating the holidays with family, there's going to be food there and these parties tend to last more than two hours, she says.

"What we want to focus on for office parties or holiday food parties is any time there's a big group of people and a lot of food, you really want to make sure the food doesn't sit out at room temperature for more than two hours," Beaugh says. "People are partying and they forget and lose track of time and how long the food has been out. Meanwhile, everyone has been picking at food the whole time."

The risk for food borne illnesses comes after two hours because that's when bacteria begins multiplying on food. It's in the danger zone -- temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees -- that's where bacteria multiplies rapidly. After two hours, your food is considered unsafe and the USDA recommends that you throw it away.

"Anything that's perishable is at risk," Beaugh said. "That would be meat items and anything with eggs in it and any kind of dairy, cheeses, poultry, seafood and things like that. Even food like potato salad or casseroles are at risk. Food such as fruit, cookies and bread, potato chips can stay out all day."

Even at family gatherings during the holidays, people have food on the table and they're eating throughout the night, Beaugh says. The precautions to protect people are easy to follow, she says.

"It's really important to use small platters and the host of the party should remember to put out a little food at a time and keep some cold and some heated up as you go so you never run the risk of things setting it out for more than two hours."

What would help people avoid such food safety risks at office parties, however, where they don't have a lot of access to refrigerators or stoves to heat food and employees want to be able to eat for several hours during the day, Beaugh suggests people bring crockpots. People can also stick cold perishable items in ice to keep them safe.

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