Holiday Leftovers: Delicious or Deadly?

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4 days is how long leftovers can stay in the fridge, unless you freeze them. However, stuffing and gravy go bad more quickly and should stay in the fridge no more than 2 days before you must eat them or toss them.

DeWaal said turkey took the No. 1 spot in a CSPI analysis of foods at highest risk of triggering food-borne illness during November and December in the years 2004 through 2008, the most recent available.

CSPI based its list on data reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which defined an outbreak as an episode in which at least two people became sickened by the same food, were seen by a doctor and had the illness confirmed by tests.

CSPI tracked food-linked infections during the months that include Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations; people who became sick after eating contaminated turkey were infected with clostridium, norovirus, salmonella and staph aureus.

Food poisoning has undergone shifts over the years, DeWaal said. "Traditional cuisine back 40 to 50 years ago was really overcooked by today's standards, but that's protective. Your green beans would be wilted. Now they're cooked al dente, or sometimes not cooked at all. We're eating a lot more fresh food, which is really good for us, as long as it doesn't carry a lot of harmful bacteria."

She said canning has become much safer because of strict regulatory controls, but at the same time, raw shellfish is more likely to be contaminated with dangerous microbes like Vibrio cholerae.

Today, food safety specialists worry about potentially fatal E. coli 0157:H7, first identified in the early 1980s, which has been traced to meat and some fresh vegetables.

It can shut down the kidneys and destroy red blood cells. They're also seeing newer strains of an antibiotic-resistant bacterium called shiga toxin-producing E. coli, (STEC) first identified in the 1990s and at the beginning of this decade.

When in Doubt, Throw It Out

To learn how long a food can stay in the refrigerator or freezer before bacteria make it unhealthful, you can check StillTasty.com, a website co-founded by Janice Revell, a New York-based journalist, and her mother Jeannie Revell, a former food safety specialist for the Canadian government, who lives on Prince Edward Island.

Their site provides information from several U.S. agencies about how long foods can be safely stored and consumed.

Revell says many people mistakenly assume that main courses pose the biggest food poisoning dangers. "You have to actually start thinking about the appetizers," she said. "The pre-meal in many cases is more dangerous than the main meal." Hosts and hostesses typically leave pates, soft cheeses like Brie, and dairy-based dips out for hours, even though they're particularly susceptible to bacterial growth. Many guests pay scant or no attention to side dishes, which "can be absolutely just as harmful to you."

Big offenders include rice salads, pasta salads and "that bowl of mashed potatoes, if it's not put into the fridge a couple of hours after serving it."

These starchy dishes are breeding grounds for Bacillus cereus, a microbe that can cause severe vomiting or disabling diarrhea.

And don't forget gravy.

If it's been left on the countertop for hours on end, even boiling may not guarantee it's safe to serve, she said. "You can't take that kind of chance."

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