CORVALLIS - If you get sick after snacking on holiday leftovers, don't assume that you overindulged. If your symptoms include nausea and diarrhea, you may be a victim of food poisoning.

Holding foods at the wrong temperature is a frequent cause of food poisoning, according to Carolyn Raab, Oregon State University Extension foods and nutrition specialist.

"Food is often mishandled during busy holiday celebrations," Raab said. "Leftovers tend to be forgotten on tables or counters while family and friends visit."

Refrigeration is the key to handling holiday leftovers safely. Bacteria can start to grow if moist, high protein foods are left at room temperature longer than two to three hours.

Reheating won't necessarily make a mishandled food safe to eat. The toxin formed by common bacteria that cause "24-hour flu" won't be destroyed during reheating. Food can be contaminated with these bacteria by a sneeze or an infected cut on a hand.

To prevent bacterial growth, refrigerate leftovers right after the meal, Raab advised. Cut turkey meat off the carcass and refrigerate or freeze it in family-size portions. Chill big pots of food such as baked beans or stew by pouring the food into shallow pans before refrigerating. Another option is to put the large pan in a sink of ice water and stir until the food has cooled before putting it in the refrigerator.

Foods such as pasta and potato salads should be kept cold. Don't blame the mayonnaise for the reputation these salads have as a bacterial breeding ground. All the handling required during their preparation increases the likelihood that bacteria could be present.

Watch the hors d'oeuvres, too. Many are perishable. As people chat over the table and help themselves, bacterial contamination could occur. Keep the temperature safe during serving. If safety of leftovers is questionable, discard them.

It's no fun to let spoiled food spoil the holidays. People with weaker immune systems are more likely to get sick from contaminated foods. That includes pregnant women, young children, older adults, and people with illnesses such as cancer and AIDS.

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 Christmas Day) from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. through Dec. 31.

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Carolyn Raab, 541-737-1019