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Holiday Parties: Spread Cheer, Not Foodborne Illness

Posted by Diane Van, Manager, USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline in Health and Safety
Dec 14, 2010

Cross-posted from

It’s that time of year when the parties never seem to end. They’re great occasions for exchanging good will and gifts – but not the dangerous bacteria that cause foodborne illness.

Here are some of the unwanted guests who may try to crash your party:

  • Staphylococcus aureus: This bacteria is commonly found on our skin and in our noses and throats. If it gets into food, it multiplies rapidly at room temperature to produce a toxin that causes illness within 1-6 hours. Thorough cooking kills the bacteria but doesn’t get rid of the toxin. Staph can be lurking in party foods that are made by hand and require no additional cooking, such as meat or potato salads, cream pies, and sandwich fillings.
  • Clostridium perfringens: It’s nicknamed the “cafeteria germ” because it tends to hang out in foods served in quantity and left out at room temperature. Meats, meat products, and gravy are the foods most often associated with illness caused by this bacteria.
  • Listeria monocytogenes: Listeria is unlike many other germs because it can grow even in the cold temperature of the refrigerator.  That’s why it may be found in those cold foods often served at buffets, such as deli meats and smoked salmon. Listeria is especially harmful to pregnant women: they are 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get the infection, and the consequences can be deadly for the unborn baby.

Here’s what you can do to prevent these and other foodborne bacteria from taking the cheer out of your holidays:

Be Nice

- Wash your hands before and after handling food.

- Serve food on a clean plate.

- Replace serving plates often

- Use a food thermometer and the Minimum Cooking Temperatures chart to make sure that food is cooked safely.

- Keep hot foods hot (140 °F or above) by using slow cookers, chafing dishes, or warming trays OR use small serving containers and replace them often.

- Keep cold foods by nesting cold (40 °F or below) in dishes in bowls of ice OR use small serving trays and replace them often.

- Store foods in shallow containers to refrigerate or freeze them.

Don't be Naugty

- Don’t let bacteria from your hands contaminate your party food.

- Never let juices from raw meat, poultry, and seafood come into contact with cooked food.

- Avoid putting fresh food on serving plates that have been sitting out at room temperature.

- Don’t guess – you can’t tell for sure whether food is safe by looking at it. Use a food thermometer to be sure.

- Never let hot foods sit at room temperature for more than two hours.

- Avoid storing foods in large containers that don’t promote rapid, even cooling of food.

For more information, check out these resources:

If you have any questions about holiday parties and food safety, feel free to contact us at the Hotline (1-888-674-6854 toll-free) or online at

Category/Topic: Health and Safety