12 Days of Experts: Don’t Make Grandma Sick at Your Holiday Party

stock image of lunchmeats on buffet

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Don’t let foodborne pathogens become the unwanted guests that ruin your holiday party.

If you’re hosting a crowd this holiday season, be sure to do so responsibly, said Linnette Goard, field specialist in Food Safety, Management and Selection for Ohio State University Extension.

OSU Extension is the outreach arm of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“People don’t always think that preparing and serving food for a lot of people deserves special attention,” Goard said. “But if you’re not used to cooking for a lot of people at one time, and if you don’t normally have to be concerned about people who are at higher risk, then it can be easy to make mistakes that could lead to a foodborne illness.”

People most at risk from foodborne illness are older people, children and anyone who is immune compromised, such as someone with diabetes, AIDS or cancer. People who have had an organ transplant are also at higher risk, Goard said.

According to foodsafety.gov, which combines resources of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide consumers with food safety information, foodborne pathogens to be concerned about include:

  • Staphylococcus aureus: This bacterium is commonly found on skin and in noses and throats. If it gets into food, it multiplies rapidly at room temperature to produce a toxin that causes illness within one to six hours. Thorough cooking kills the bacterium, but the toxin will remain. Especially at risk are 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. Foods most often associated with this bug are meats, meat products and gravy.
  • 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 cold foods often served at buffets, such as deli meats and smoked salmon. Listeria is especially harmful to pregnant women, who are 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get the infection, and the consequences can be deadly for the unborn baby.

Goard offers these guidelines to reduce the risk of foodborne illness at your holiday gathering:

  • Wash your hands before and after handling food. Washing your hands properly is the No. 1 way you can prevent foodborne illness. Unfortunately, most people don’t wash their hands long enough for it to be as effective as possible, Goard said. For details on washing hands properly, see cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html.
  • Keep foods at the proper temperature. Hot foods need to be kept at 140 degrees F or above, and cold foods need to be kept at 40 degrees or below. On a buffet, use small serving plates and replace foods often, or use slow cookers, warming trays or put dishes in bowls of ice. Never let perishable foods sit at room temperature for more than two hours.
  • When storing hot leftovers, use shallow containers. That helps them cool to a proper temperature more quickly.

For more hints to keep your holiday party safe, see “Holiday Parties: Spread Cheer, Not Foodborne Illness,” at foodsafety.gov/blog/buffet.html.

Ohio State also offers food safety guidance at foodsafety.osu.edu and on OSU Extension’s Family and Consumer Sciences blog site at livesmartohio.osu.edu/.


CFAES News Team
For more information, contact: 

Linnette Goard
330-725-4911 x 107