Penn State food safety expert offers tips on safe handling of holiday leftovers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — One of the great things about an abundant Thanksgiving meal is the opportunity to enjoy it a second, third or even fourth time — for many, leftovers are as much of a holiday tradition as the feast itself.

However, incorrectly saved, the turkey in that midnight snack could lead to next-day stomach pains, vomiting or worse, according to a food safety specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"The holiday season is a time of good food and festivities, but it is also a time for foodborne illness outbreaks," said Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate. "While safe food preparation is critical, what we do with the turkey after it is served is also important. Leftovers — if not properly handled, including prompt refrigeration — can be dangerous."

To illustrate his point, he referenced two outbreaks related to holiday leftovers. One, in 2014, caused a dozen night-shift postal workers in North Carolina to be hospitalized for food poisoning after eating unrefrigerated leftovers from a company potluck dinner earlier in the day. In another outbreak in 2015, also in North Carolina, 40 people fell ill with severe vomiting after the turkey and stuffing were allowed to sit at a higher-than-recommended temperature after cooking.

What should one do with uneaten fare? For starters, refrigerate foods soon after the meal is finished.

"Do not leave cooked foods such as turkey or stuffing out on the table too long after serving," Bucknavage said. "Two hours is about as long as you want to leave food out before you need to refrigerate or freeze, and any cooked foods that have been left out for an extended period should be discarded."

Equally important is making sure food is stored at the right temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below — between 34 and 38 F is optimal. Another tip is to store food in amounts that will allow for rapid cooling. Bucknavage recommends separating large amounts into small containers because "large quantities packed in the refrigerator will cool too slowly."

Furthermore, it is a good idea to freeze cooked meat or stuffing that will not be used within a few days. Spoilage becomes an issue for leftovers held longer than three to four days.

Properly cooked and cooled leftovers can be eaten cold. With that in mind, Bucknavage advises that when making a leftover staple — turkey salad — one should make sure to cool all the ingredients before mixing and then store that salad at refrigeration temperature.

"By following just a few simple food safety rules, you can protect you and your guests from foodborne illness," he said.

In addition to providing consumer education about food safety, food safety research conducted by scientists in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has helped to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply.

For example, researchers are exploring ways to trace foodborne illness outbreaks more quickly so they can be stopped at the source; studying methods to identify and eliminate antibiotic-resistant pathogens; and developing novel processing technologies to kill bacteria without damaging the food they contaminate.

Bucknavage said a recent Penn State study — timely in light of the coming holidays — demonstrated that salmonella and campylobacter, two dangerous foodborne pathogens, are likely to be present on poultry no matter where it is purchased — the grocery store, the farmers' market or a local farmer.

"Don't assume the location where you buy your bird will lessen the risk of foodborne illness," he said. "Always be sure to cook your turkey to the proper temperature of 165 F and to clean up raw-turkey drippings to prevent cross contamination."

For more food safety tips, visit Penn State Extension's website at https://extension.psu.edu/food-safety-and-processing/home-food-safety.

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Last Updated November 16, 2017