The overlooked hazards of holiday eating

Don't let foodborne pathogens crash your party.

Published: December, 2011

Most people are aware of the dangers of overeating and overimbibing during the winter holidays, but few worry about a lesser-known risk of year-end celebrations. Every year, 48 million Americans develop foodborne illness (also known as food poisoning or stomach flu), most of which isn't reported to health authorities. Festive dinners and buffets offer more opportunities for contamination than most meals, but you can greatly reduce your risk by taking a few precautions.

Common foodborne pathogens and the illnesses they cause


Common sources

Time after ingesting

Symptoms and duration of illness


Raw poultry, unpasteurized milk

2 to 5 days

Cramps, diarrhea (often bloody); 2 to 10 days

E. coli O157:H7

Undercooked beef, unpasteurized dairy

1 to 8 days

Cramps, bloody diarrhea; 5 to 10 days


Raw produce, contaminated water, infected food handling, shellfish

12 to 48 hours

Cramps, nausea, diarrhea, fever, headache; 12 to 60 hours


Eggs, poultry, unpasteurized dairy, raw produce

6 to 48 hours

Cramps, diarrhea, fever; 4 to 7 days

Source: FDA, at

A few food safety basics

The USDA and the FDA offer advice that can be condensed into these three basic rules:

Avoid cross-contamination. Fresh food will always contain some bacteria, simply from the environment. The bacteria common to fruit and vegetables can be washed off, but only thorough cooking destroys most of those on meat, fish, and poultry. So keep meat, fish, and poultry apart from salad greens, fruits, and other produce that you plan to eat raw. Wrap all meat, fish, and poultry in plastic bags before you place them in the grocery cart, and store them on a lower rack or in separate bins in the refrigerator so the juices can't drip onto the produce. Wash your hands, utensils, and cutting surfaces whenever you switch from working with raw meat, fish, or poultry to anything that will be eaten raw.

Watch the temperature. Bacteria proliferate at temperatures between 40 F and 140 F. In that "danger zone," their numbers can double in 20 minutes. Use a food thermometer to ensure that you're keeping your raw dishes cold enough and that hot dishes have been cooked thoroughly.

Follow the two-hour rule. Don't leave raw meat or poultry in the danger zone for more than two hours. If you do, they may produce illness-causing toxins that aren't destroyed by cooking.

Selected resource

The challenges of holiday foods

Some traditional holiday dishes, beverages, and traditions provide perfect opportunities for bacterial contamination and growth. Use special care with the following:

Turkey. Most raw poultry contains some Campylobacter, the most common cause 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 F. For a faster thawing time (30 minutes per pound compared with six hours per pound in the refrigerator), the turkey can be submerged in cold water instead, 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 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 F before serving.

Stuffing. Packing dressing into the cavity of the turkey before you roast it raises the risk of contamination. The dressing can absorb bacteria from internal drippings as the bird cooks, and it might not get hot enough to eliminate the bacteria before the turkey is done. USDA scientists advise you to cook dressing separately and refrigerate leftover dressing 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 dressing reach an internal temperature of 165 F.

Pumpkin pie and eggnog. Eggs — an important ingredient in both of these holiday treats — often contain a small amount of salmonella, a bacterium transferred from the hen that can cause illness in humans. To destroy this bacterium, you should cook egg-containing foods to a temperature of 160 F. (You can find recipes for cooked eggnog on the Web.) After cooking, eggnog should be cooled immediately on a bed of ice and put in the refrigerator; adding a dash of rum will not provide any protection against bacteria. Pumpkin pie should be served or refrigerated within two hours.

Food gifts. Prepared food that travels more than two hours must be kept chilled or frozen en route. (According to the USDA, it's nearly impossible to keep any food hot enough for an extended period unless it's traveling in a mobile oven.) If a frozen food arrives fully thawed or a chilled food arrives at room temperature, thank the giver but discard the food.

Late-arriving guests. If your guests can't get over the river and through the woods within two hours of dinnertime, don't keep the meal in a warming oven. Instead, refrigerate prepared foods and reheat them to 165 F when the latecomers arrive.

Buffets. The two-hour rule applies to all prepared dishes on the table. It may help to divide each dish into smaller portions and replace dishes as they empty. If you reuse a serving dish, wash it before refilling.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.