Holiday season brings increased risk of food poisoning

It’s time for the holidays, and you know what that means — an increase in outbreaks of the pathogenic bacteria Clostridium perfringens!

Okay, maybe you didn’t know that. Well, so that you do know, C. perfringens is a strain of bacteria associated with cooked foods left out at room temperature. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s to blame for nearly a million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. alone each year. It’s the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning, and we see more outbreaks in November and December — around the holidays.

Why is this the case? Well, this time of year brings an abundance of holiday parties and the delicious, elaborate meals that go along with them. At many of these events, food and snacks are set out for all to enjoy over the course of the party. However, if food is left at room temperature for more than two hours, it becomes very easy for bacteria to rapidly multiply there.

Between 40°F and 140°F (known as the “danger zone”), bacteria grows quickly. Unless you like being very cold (or very, very warm!), “room temperature” falls within that range. If your party food is left out for people to pick at for more than two hours, there’s a big risk that your guests might get sick, with symptoms that include diarrhea and abdominal cramps. On the plus side, C. perfringens can’t be passed from one person to another, and it doesn’t cause fever or vomiting.

Meat and poultry are the foods that tend to host C. perfringens, but it can also be found in the environment. Large roasts, big pots of stew and similar dishes are the ones you most need to watch out for. Because it tends to grow in foods served to large groups over a period of time, outbreaks tend to happen in hospitals, cafeterias, prisons, parties and nursing homes.

There’s an easy way to help avoid making yourself and your party guests sick: Don’t leave food out. Refrigerate your leftovers in shallow containers (allowing them to reach cooler, safer temperatures quickly). There’s no need to wait for hot foods to reach cooler temperatures before refrigerating, in fact, you shouldn’t. When reheating, make sure the food reaches an internal temperature of 165°F before you eat it.

Lastly, always follow this sage advice: When in doubt, throw it out.

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