Illnesses caused by improperly cooked food or improperly handled food products number approximately 76 million cases each year. With the holiday season upon us, and more people preparing dishes for large gatherings, state health officials remind Louisianians to remember a few food safety tips.

Dr. Fred Cerise, LDH Secretary, said many families cook larger quantities of food during the holidays than at other times of the year. This increases their risk for a foodborne illness.

“During the holiday seasons, we urge people to be extra cautious when handling food,” Dr. Cerise said. “Anytime you handle multiple food items, cook meals that are larger in size, more complex and result in a messier kitchen, it increases the risk of contamination. We see this not only in homes, but in schools, cafeterias and other eating establishments during the holidays.

Foodborne illnesses are more likely to arise when large quantities of food are being prepared, and when more people than usual help out in the kitchen, said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state health officer.

“We want to be alert as we prepare food for the holidays, whether it’s for Thanksgiving or other large family get-togethers. The most important precaution is not allowing food to become contaminated with bacteria as it is being prepared,” Guidry said. “Although most cases of food poisoning result in only a mild illness, severe infections and serious complications can occur.”

Foodborne diseases include infections caused by bacteria such as Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, Escherichia coli O157, Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, Listeria monocytogenes, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Vibrio, and parasites such as Cryptosporidium and Cyclospora. These organisms can be unwelcome guests at any gathering and can be found in a wide range of foods, such as meat, seafood, milk and other dairy products, and even fresh produce.

Common symptoms of foodborne illnesses include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, headache, vomiting and severe exhaustion. Symptoms may occur as early as a half-hour after eating the contaminated food or they may not develop for several days or weeks.
These symptoms usually last only a day or two, but in some cases may persist a week to 10 days. Symptoms will vary depending upon the type and the amount of bacteria ingested.

Foodborne illnesses can be severe among the very young, elderly and those individuals whose immune systems are suppressed. When severe symptoms occur, individuals should seek medical attention immediately.

The LDH Office of Public Health offers the following tips to ensure that holiday foods are safe to eat:

  • Bacteria are often present in raw foods. Fully cook meats and poultry and thoroughly wash raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Be sure to keep hot liquids and foods away from the edges of counters and tables, where they can be easily knocked over by a young child’s exploring hands.
  • Wash your hands frequently ... with soap and warm water ... before preparing, serving or eating food.
  • Never put a spoon used to taste food back into the food without washing it.
  • Get perishable foods into the refrigerator as quickly as possible after buying them.
  • Keep foods out of the “danger zone” (between 45°F and 140°F). This minimizes bacterial growth that could cause a foodborne illness.
  • Thaw frozen foods in a manner that inhibits bacterial growth, such as in the refrigerator on a tray to catch drainage, under cold running and continuously draining water, in the microwave if the food is cooked immediately after, or as part of a continuous cooking process.
  • Cook all meats and reheat leftovers to the following temperatures: poultry (165°F), ground beef (155°F), rare roast beef (130°F), pork (150°F), leftovers (165°F).
  • Keep your kitchen or food preparation areas clean.
  • Wash platters, utensils, cutting boards and other food preparation equipment in between uses of cooked and raw foods or different types of foods.