You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sat, Feb 25, 2012 : 5 a.m.

Simple precautions prevent food poising

By Ask Dr. K

Harvard Medical School Adviser by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


I attended a holiday dinner party at Christmas and ended up with food poisoning. It was very unpleasant and, although I'd hoped to host next year myself, I don't want to make anyone sick. How can I prepare a good meal that is also safe for my guests?


One of the best parts about a holiday party is the food. Unfortunately, as you experienced, people can develop foodborne illness (food poisoning or infections) if the food is not prepared carefully. The good news is you can greatly reduce the chance that your guests will become ill by taking a few precautions.

There are three basic rules you can follow to ensure your food is safe to eat:

-- First, avoid cross-contamination, which is the transfer of bacteria from one food item to another. All fresh food contains some bacteria. Most of the bacteria on fruit and vegetables can be washed off, but you can destroy the bacteria on meat, fish and poultry only by cooking it.

To avoid cross-contamination, keep meat, fish and poultry apart from salad greens, fruits and other foods that you plan to eat raw. Fully separate them from each other in the grocery cart and in the refrigerator. Wash your hands, utensils and cutting surfaces whenever you switch from working with uncooked meat, fish or poultry to anything that will be eaten raw.

-- Second, check the temperature of the foods you store and cook. Bacteria grow fast at temperatures between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F. Use a food thermometer to make sure you're keeping your raw dishes cold enough and that hot dishes have been cooked enough.

-- Third, make sure you follow the two-hour rule. That is, do not leave raw meat or poultry in the temperature danger zone for more than two hours. If you do, they may produce illness-causing toxins that can't be destroyed by cooking.

You should also be aware that some traditional holiday dishes and drinks provide perfect opportunities for bacterial contamination and growth.

If you plan to serve a turkey, use special care. Raw poultry is one of the most common causes of bacterial diarrhea, so proper cooking and storage are critical. A frozen turkey should be thawed in the refrigerator to prevent the surface from reaching temperatures above 40 degrees F. For a faster thawing time, the turkey can be submerged in cold water, as long as you change the water every 30 minutes.

A fresh turkey must reach your refrigerator within two hours of leaving the merchant's cooler. Cook it until the temperature is 165 degrees F in the innermost breast, thighs and wings, and serve it within two hours. For storage, all the meat should be removed from the bone, divided into smaller pieces, placed in shallow containers and refrigerated or frozen. Leftover meat should be reheated to 165 degrees F before serving. The way you prepare stuffing is also important. Stuffing the turkey before you roast it raises the risk of contamination. The stuffing can absorb bacteria from internal drippings as the bird cooks, and the stuffing may not get hot enough to eliminate the bacteria before the turkey is done. The best thing to do is to cook the stuffing separately and refrigerate leftover stuffing in a separate container.

If you still want to stuff your turkey, chill the ingredients ahead of time (keeping wet and dry ingredients separate) and combine them just before stuffing the bird. Then cook the turkey immediately, using a meat thermometer to make sure both the bird and the stuffing reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.

You also need to be careful when preparing treats that contain eggs, such as pumpkin pie and eggnog. Eggs often contain bacteria that can cause illness in humans. Illness can be avoided by cooking egg-containing foods to a temperature of 160 degrees F.

The way you serve the food may also influence how safe it is for guests to eat. If you plan to serve it buffet-style, use the two-hour rule mentioned above. The two-hour rule applies to all prepared foods on the table. It may help to divide each food item into smaller portions and refill dishes as they empty. If you reuse a serving dish, wash it before refilling.

Lastly, pay attention to any gifted food. Prepared food that travels more than two hours must be kept chilled or frozen en route. If a frozen food arrives fully thawed or a chilled food arrives at room temperature, thank the giver but discreetly discard the food. If you follow these rules, your holiday meals can be festive, tasty and also safe. For more advice on preventing foodborne illnesses, visit

(Submit questions to

** ** **