OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Hotline answers holiday food safety questions

11/13/1996

CORVALLIS - If you don't want bacteria as uninvited guests at holiday gatherings, test your knowledge of food safety with this quiz: - Is it safe to stuff your holiday turkey? -Will leftover ham or turkey be safe to eat after sitting out all afternoon? - Can you ship flavored vinegar by mail safely?

If you're not really sure about the answers, it's time to call the Oregon State University Extension holiday food safety hotline. The number is (800) 354-7319.

The hotline will be staffed Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. from Nov. 18 through Dec. 31, according to Carolyn Raab, OSU Extension foods and nutrition specialist.

Attention to food safety during the holidays is especially important for pregnant women, young children, older adults and people in poor health, all of whom are more susceptible to illness caused by poor food handling.

Here are some general guidelines that will alert you to potential food safety problems. If they trigger concern, a call to the Extension hotline may prevent an unpleasant holiday experience.

Bacteria are the culprits in most cases of food borne illness. To prevent bacterial growth, pay special attention to controlling the temperature of foods. As a rule, perishable foods should not be held at room temperature longer than two to three hours.

"Hot foods should be kept hot - above 140 degrees F - and cold foods at refrigerator temperature," Raab said.

She recommends keeping storage temperature in mind when planning holiday menus. If a long wait is anticipated before people sit down to eat, keep enough space in the refrigerator or oven to hold foods at the right temperature until mealtime.

For office parties, co-workers might be advised to bring ingredients for a main dish that can be prepared shortly before the party begins. And for family gatherings, assign foods that don't require refrigeration to those who will be traveling the furthest. Bread, packaged snacks, raw fruits and vegetables, beverages, or non-perishable cakes and cookies are usually safe choices for long distance travel.

Once food is served, keep an eye on the clock, Raab said. If food will be on the serving table for a long time, it's best to use small bowls or trays. Then replenish them from larger quantities kept in the refrigerator or oven.

When the meal is finished, be sure to refrigerate perishable leftovers right away.

"Don't assume that reheating will make mishandled leftovers safe to eat." Raab said. "Reheating won't destroy the toxin produced by Staphylococcus bacteria, which causes an illness similar to the 24-hour flu."

So what about turkey stuffing? The USDA cautions that stuffing prolongs the cooking time and prevents uniform cooking. If you decide to cook stuffing inside the turkey, prepare the stuffing just before it goes into the bird. Place the stuffing in loosely and bake in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees. Use a meat thermometer to be sure the stuffing reaches 165 degrees to kill bacteria.

What about leftover ham or turkey? If it's been sitting at room temperature longer than two to three hours, bacteria could be present. Remember to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

Can you ship flavored vinegar by mail? It's risky to ship foods that require refrigeration through the mail. Flavored vinegar that's prepared properly can be shipped safely because it's very acidic. Use a recycled plastic vinegar bottle to guard against breakage.