Published on 12/17/97

Handle Holiday Foods With Care

Last month, more than 700 people got sick, 31 were hospitalized and one died after a church fund-raising supper in Maryland. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe improper handling and storage of a ham dish served at the supper was the culprit.

On the heels of this holiday tragedy, food scientists at the University of Georgia urge people to handle food properly to avoid foodborne illnesses.

"The holiday season is a time for gatherings," said Elizabeth Andress, a food safety specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences. "Americans like to share food along with their good times and celebrations. But without using proper handling rules, you could share foodborne illness with your family and friends."

According to news reports, the church supper in Maryland had been held for 30 years with no trouble. Luck ran out this year because of improper preparation of a ham dish found to contain Salmonella heidelberg.

"All signs point to a complex stuffed ham dish made with vegetables, ham and spices as the culprit," said Andress. "It was a community specialty dish that is pickled to make corned ham."

Andress said the dish requires the preparer to slice pockets in the ham and stuff the pockets with a mixture of kale, cabbage, onion and spices.

Preparers began making the dish Wednesday before the Sunday dinner, Andress said. The hams were stuffed Wednesday, stored in refrigerated trailers over night and cooked Thursday. The dish was then refrigerated until Sunday's dinner.

"This case points out that dangers of foodborne illness increase when food is prepared days ahead of time, is stored between preparation and cooking, and is prepared by many different people," Andress said. "This is also an example that shows years of practice and experience don't necessarily make something safe to do."

Symptoms of Salmonellosis include cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and fever. The symptoms generally last three to four days and can take up to 72 hours to appear. Severe cases often develop in children, the elderly or people with weakened immune systems. The death in Maryland case was an elderly woman.

UGA food specialists say following the basic rules of good food handling should prevent foodborne illnesses from showing up at your holiday gatherings.

  • Wash your hands before and during food preparation.
  •  Defrost frozen meats, poultry and fish inside your refrigerator at or below 40 degrees. If you use your microwave to defrost, be sure to thoroughly cook food immediately after defrosting.
  • Avoid cross-contamination. Clean and sanitize food preparation surfaces after exposure to raw meats, poultry, fish or eggs. Wash hands, kitchen work spaces and utensils as soon as they contact contaminated foods. Use separate cutting boards and knives for vegetables and meats.
  • Never return cooked foods to dishes they were placed on when raw.
  • Cook ground beef and other meats, poultry and eggs thoroughly. Use a thermometer to determine the done point of meats and poultry.
  • Store foods properly and promptly after cooking to minimize bacteria growth. Use shallow storage containers and divide food into small quantities that will cool quickly.
  • If foods are to remain hot after thorough cooking, keep them above 140 degrees F. If you need to cool them, do so in the refrigerator at 40 degrees F or below. Use insulated carriers to transport hot or cold foods to parties. Don't keep perishable foods within the danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees F for more than two hours.
  • Use proper serving dishes for foods that must be kept hot, and make sure heat sources keep food at or above 140 degrees F.
  • Provide proper serving utensils for all foods so party-goers don't have to use their fingers to pick up hors d'oerves.
  • Be wary of saving leftover food that has been at room temperature for more than two hours.
  • Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.