Safe food handling, storage can prevent illness from Thanksgiving leftovers |

Safe food handling, storage can prevent illness from Thanksgiving leftovers

While family can be a source of stress during the holidays, food doesn't have to be.
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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For some, the leftovers are the best part of Thanksgiving. Who doesn’t love pecan pie for breakfast or a turkey-stuffing-mashed potato-cranberry sauce sandwich for lunch?

Or, for those with a little more culinary ambition, leftovers can be reimagined into soups, casseroles and savory pies. How about deep-fried stuffing bites, turkey frittata or potato pancakes?

But it’s wise to take a few precautions when it comes to reusing food and safe storage.

If it’s been two weeks and the green bean casserole smells funny or the turkey has blue spots, it’s probably time to dump it. But sometimes, it’s not always that obvious.

A good rule of thumb is to only keep your refrigerated leftovers for three to five days, according to Lauren Bryan, epidemiologist and infection preventionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.

And, smell and taste tests “are not good indicators how much bacteria is on there,” Bryan said. Mold (fungus) and bacteria are two different things, she emphasized.

In terms of storing food, Bryan gives a few tips.

First, it’s best not to leave anything out of the fridge or freezer for more than two hours.

Leftovers are best stored in multiple smaller containers, she said. If you put a heap of mashed potatoes in a giant Tupperware, the potatoes in the middle could take hours to get out of the temperature danger zone — which is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

The ideal temperature for a refrigerator is 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

Turkey has the most potential for illness, Bryan said, because of two common causes of food poisoning, which are salmonella and campylobacter. All poultry is essentially somewhat contaminated, she said. “Poultry is already coming to you with bacteria on it.”

First, make sure it is cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. And, when handling the raw turkey and its juices, be vigilant about avoiding cross-contamination. Don’t let your veggies make contact with juices in the sink or the same cutting board on which the turkey sat. Bryan said she likes to use color-coded cutting boards — one for meat, one for veggies, one for bread, etc. And when you get too many deep cut marks in your cutting board, whether wooden or plastic, it’s time to get a new one, she advised.

Even when you cook a turkey to 165 degrees, you may be “knocking down the vast majority of contaminates,” Bryan said, but you aren’t sterilizing it. In ideal conditions, bacteria can still proliferate. That’s why it is important to get those leftovers into the fridge or freezer and eat them within three to five days.

Leafy greens are also notorious for contamination, as evidenced in the Nov. 22 warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for consumers not to eat any romaine lettuce from Salinas, California.

The lettuce is linked to at least 40 cases of E. coli infection nationwide, including in Colorado.

Even if you buy pre-packaged, triple-washed greens, wash them again, Bryan said.

Another important precaution against getting sick and transmitting comes down to frequent hand washing.

Wash hands frequently, including between handling different types of food. The norovirus outbreak in Mesa County is a timely reminder of the importance of hand washing, Bryan noted.

A norovirus outbreak is a result of contaminated hands — not food, Bryan said. Norovirus involves human fecal matter being orally ingested. And it takes a remarkably small viral load for norovirus to transmit, Bryan said.

Freezing leftovers (within a few days of cooking) is a great way to save them without risk of contamination. Just remember when you are ready to eat those leftovers, Bryan said, to thaw them in the refrigerator and not on the counter.

Different parts of the food can thaw at different rates, and the outer layer may reach the danger zone temperature while the middle is still frozen.

So what about food with mold? Does it all have to be thrown away?

Bryan advises that if you see mold, toss it. While some mold is not very harmful, it’s impossible to make a blanket statement that anything is safe, Bryan said.

There are different kinds of mold, and people react differently. Most healthy adults can handle most mold without a detrimental effect, she said. But some mold can contain dangerous toxins, and mold is more dangerous to people who are very old, very young or have a compromised immune system.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are only a few instances in which it is OK to cut off mold and still consume the food.

First, it is normal for hard salami and dry-cured country hams to have surface mold — go ahead scrub it off and enjoy.

If you see mold on hard cheese, cut off at least 1 inch around and below the mold spot (and keep the knife out of the mold). Discard soft cheese with mold. If fruits and veggies are soft, the USDA recommends discarding. If they are firm — such as cabbage, bell peppers or carrots — cut off at least 1 inch around the mold.

Anything else, the USDA advises to discard.

While family can be a source of stress during the holidays, food doesn’t have to be. So, just remember to wash your hands, wash your greens, cook your meat, get everything in the fridge or freezer when the meal ends and eat your leftovers before Dec. 3.

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