SIKESTON -- The holidays are a time for lots of food and visiting.
And sometimes at holiday gatherings, food may be left out for long periods, or those preparing it may be in a rush, which can lead to food-borne illnesses.
"During the holidays we tend to fix larger quantities of food and be in a bigger rush and perhaps not so focused on food safety," said Tracy Owens, environmental public health specialist with the Scott County Health Department.
"The holidays are times of the year to spend with our family and friends," said Richard Fancher, of the University of Missouri-Columbia's Department of Environmental Health and Safety in a news release. "However, it's important to make sure we handle food properly and keep everyone safe and healthy during our celebrations."
One of the biggest tips is to follow proper hand-washing techniques and avoid touching prepared food with bare hands, said John Wofford, environmental public health specialist at the New Madrid County Health Department.
"Proper hand-washing means keeping your hands lathered for at least 20 seconds," he said. "Which is a long time."
He also stressed that once meat or other foods are cooked, they need to be handled with utensils only. "You can handle raw meat before you cook it, but after you cook it, you don't want to touch it -- especially foods that are left at room temperature for hours," Wofford said. "If you don't touch it with your bare hands, that goes a long way."
It's important to put leftover foods in the refrigerator as soon as possible after eating, because harmful bacteria grow quickly at room temperature, Wofford and Owens noted.
"Break large amounts of food into smaller portions to ensure that they cool quickly," Owens advised. "And do not overload the refrigerator, as this will prevent the air from circulating properly."
Susie Kenedy, owner of Susie's Bake Shoppe, who caters for several holiday parties, noted that's vital. "It's just important to keep things refrigerated at the right temperature," she said.
For the most part, refrigerators need to be set at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
When catering meals, her staff usually puts away leftovers, so that's one less thing the party hosts have to worry about.
Temperatures are important when cooking, too. Owens said not to rely on color as an indicator of doneness, but to use food thermometers.
She shared other tips to remember when preparing foods. "Be sure to clean all food contact surfaces -- cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops -- after each item is prepped and before going on to the next item," said Owens. Wofford agreed, and said to use sanitizer solution at the concentration for use on food-contact surfaces.
"Avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw meats, poultry, seafood and their juices away from foods that you aren't going to cook," Owens continued. That applies to shopping, too.
"Always thaw meats in the refrigerator," advised Kenedy. "Not in hot water, which a lot of people do."
Owens noted that the holidays aren't a peak time for food-borne illness -- the summer is. However, Wofford said there is a slight increase.
"I also hear a lot of talk about stomach viruses (this time of year)," he said. "Those things are probably food borne illness-related, people just don't know it."
Some symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps.
"Most of the time the illness is fairly mild and will end after a few days," said Owens.
However, she and Wofford said there are more serious forms, which may require a person to see a doctor or even be hospitalized.