MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - 'Tis the season for family gatherings and large buffet-style eating. However, foods that are left out for long periods of time leave the door open for uninvited guests: bacteria that cause foodborne illness.
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service is issuing holiday-inspired food safety recommendations to keep you healthy this holiday season.
If you're traveling with something that's cooked and hot and ready to go, you want to keep it above 140° F. And you don't need a fire to do that! You can wrap it in foil, or with towels, or put it in an insulated bag.
"You want to make sure you're not traveling too far, don't go anywhere that's longer than two hours if you have food," said Kristina Beaugh, a public affairs specialist with USDA Food Safety Education. "After two hours that bacteria really starts to multiply. If you're traveling with anything cold, you want to make sure to keep it in a cooler with frozen ice packs or gel packs to keep it below 40 degrees while you're traveling."
If you're unable to get to the family this year for the holidays, but you still want some of the home cooking...
"It's definitely OK to mail food, my mom mails me food all of the time," Beaugh said. "If it's something perishable like meat or poultry you want to check with that delivery service to make sure they ship things like that. And it should be ideally delivered overnight to keep it safe and it should be delivered frozen."
Cakes and other non-perishable items are okay to ship in the mail; pies with a cream filling should be shipped frozen.
Listeria monocytogenes loves to live on people's hands and steam tables. And unlike microorganisms that cause food to spoil, harmful or pathogenic bacteria cannot be smelled or tasted. Prevention is safe food handling.
Divide cooked foods into shallow containers to store in the refrigerator or freezer until serving. This encourages rapid, even cooling. Reheat hot foods to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Arrange and serve food on several small platters rather than on one large platter. Keep the rest of the food hot in the oven (set at 200-250 degrees Fahrenheit) or cold in the refrigerator until serving time. This way foods will be held at a safe temperature for a longer period of time. Replace empty platters rather than adding fresh food to a dish that already had food in it. Many people's hands may have been taking food from the dish, which has also been sitting out at room temperature.
Foods should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours. Keep track of how long foods have been sitting on the buffet table and discard anything there two hours or more.
Hot foods should be held at 140 degrees or warmer. On the buffet table you can keep hot foods hot with chafing dishes, slow cookers, and warming trays.
"You can keep it out for longer by keeping hot food hot. You can keep it in a crockpot or slow cooker, or serve it on a warming tray or chaffing dish and that will keep it over 140 degrees."
Cold foods should be held at 40 degrees or colder. Keep foods cold by nesting dishes in bowls of ice. Otherwise, use small serving trays and replace them. Make sure you keep refreshing that ice.
If you're looking for a last minute holiday gift that will definitely get some use in the kitchen, the USDA says these are the top gifts. A food thermometer is a useful tool for even the most experienced cook as it is the only way to ensure that meat is fully cooked. A cutting board is also a nice gift, but you want to make sure you're using separate cutting boards for raw meat and ready-to-eat food, which is a great way to prevent cross-contamination. Kitchen towels are also a good gift for the holiday season. These towels should be washed frequently to avoid cross-contamination, so a home cook can never have enough kitchen towels.