Holiday Leftovers: Delicious or Deadly?

Almost any cooked food, left out too long, can become toxic fare.

ByABC News
December 17, 2010, 8:53 PM

Dec. 27, 2010— -- After countless hours fussing over a holiday feast, you may see leftovers as liberation from the kitchen. But before you re-heat and eat that once-hot turkey, ham, sweet potato casserole or custard pie, you should know that they can make you so sick you might wish you were dead.

How Do Leftover Holiday Goodies Become Gut Gremlins?

Food safety specialists explain that when cooked foods linger more than two hours at room temperature, they can become mess halls for colorless, odorless, tasteless bacteria.

You might suspect such dangers in meat or turkey, and you've probably heard that it's important to separate turkey from the stuffing when storing them. But what might surprise you is that even simple, starchy dishes like mashed potatoes enter a bacterial "danger zone" at temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. At those temperatures, toxic bacteria can quickly multiply, stealing your holiday spirit -- and squashing your appetite.

Given enough warmth, nutrients and moisture, a single bacterium dividing every half-hour can produce 17 million offspring in 12 hours, according to figures cited by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Three particularly nasty microbes can hitch a ride on hands and steam tables, turning a Christmas or New Year's party into anything but a celebration, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service: