The holidays can be a great time of year to host parties and cook for family and friends.
But food safety mistakes — especially when they involve raw poultry and other sources of contamination — can lead to some sick guests and, in the worst cases, a trip to the hospital.
“We have a lot of people, for example, this time of year that may be defrosting a turkey outside the refrigerator,” said Bruce Ruck. “That’s really not a great idea, because parts of the turkey get thawed out before other parts and therefore you have bacterial overgrowth.”
Ruck is managing director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. He said calls to the center are pretty steady year-round, but the nature of those calls tends to shift toward more food poisonings around Thanksgiving and winter holidays.
The center received about 230 calls in November and December last year about food poisoning, preparation, serving, and storage.
Bacteria from raw poultry, like salmonella, can be especially harmful. Symptoms of illness include an upset stomach or stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.
For those preparing a turkey this year, Ruck recommends defrosting the bird on the bottom shelf in a fridge, and using a plate or platter underneath to minimize the chance of raw meat coming into contact with anything else.
“You want to make sure utensils and tabletops are cleaned really well, too,” he said. “We want to make sure that things don’t contaminate each other, raw products don’t get into cooked products.”
Humans may not be the only guests at dinner who can suffer from a food-related illness. Ruck said people should consider the health and safety of their pets, too.
“They get sick because they get into candy that’s left around,” he said. “They eat food that they’re not supposed to eat.”
It’s also important to dispose of alcohol when the feast is over, Ruck said, and keep medications away from any children who may be around. Ruck said those are two common culprits of poisoning among kids.
But sometimes, prevention methods fail. The reassuring news is that more than half of poison exposures called in to the national helpline in 2020 were considered nontoxic or mild. Many of these cases can be managed at home or outside a health care facility.
However, some situations may require medical attention or emergency care.
“If they are not breathing, if they cannot be woken up, that’s a 9-1-1 [call] immediately,” Ruck said. “But if they’re awake and they’re alert, then give us a call and we will walk you through it.”
The New Jersey Poison Control Center is staffed every day at all hours. The national America’s Poison Centers hotline 1-800-222-1222 will connect callers to local experts at regional poison control centers for medical advice and recommendations about a suspected poisoning.