CORVALLIS Ð Because food is an important part of holiday celebrations, careful attention to the way it is served will help ensure that guests do not become victims of food poisoning.

"If you are planning a holiday buffet, the key to food safety is to keep perishable foods at a safe temperature," said Carolyn Raab, Oregon State University Extension foods and nutrition specialist.

Bacteria tend to grow when food is maintained at a temperature between 40 to 140 degrees for more than 2Ð3 hours. A thermometer that registers in that zone is a wise investment. Restaurant inspectors use a convenient dial thermometer that is fairly inexpensive.

To keep hot foods hot (above 140 degrees) use warming plates or appliances such as slow cookers or frying pans on "low" settings. Also, hold hot food in the oven before transferring it to the buffet table.

Keep cold foods cold by placing them on ice on the serving table. And be sure to leave them in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve them.

Serve small quantities of food and plan to replenish containers frequently. Avoid adding fresh food to leftovers that may have been held at an unsafe temperature.

If you have catered or takeout food on the buffet, handle it safely, too. If foods are delivered or picked up far in advance, make sure you have room in the oven or refrigerator to hold them.

Leftovers should be refrigerated or frozen promptly after guests have served themselves. Hot foods will cool faster in shallow containers. Unlike the days of ice boxes, you can refrigerate foods before they have completely cooled. If you leave hot foods on the counter until they reach room temperature, they may end up in the dangerous temperature zone for too long.

"There's no substitute for safe handling of leftovers," Raab said. "Don't rely on reheating to make them safe to eat. Bacteria that cause symptoms like 24-hour flu produce a toxin that isn't destroyed during reheating. Those leftovers must be kept either hot or cold."

Raab encourages guests to make safe choices in the buffet line. Avoid lukewarm main dishes such as roast poultry, meat and casseroles made with them, baked beans, potato and pasta salads, and cream pies. To be on the safe side, choose raw fruits and vegetables, cheddar cheese, crackers, breads, and non-perishable desserts.

Pregnant women, young children, older adults and people in poor health are especially vulnerable to food poisoning and could experience severe symptoms. It may take a little more time and effort to handle food safely, but avoiding food poisoning during the holiday season is well worth it.

For further information about holiday food safety, contact the OSU Extension Holiday Food Safety Hotline (1-800-354-7319). Home economists and certified volunteers will answer questions weekdays except holidays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. through Dec. 31.

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Carolyn Raab, 541-737-1019