If you haven't eaten the leftovers from Thursday's Thanksgiving feast, then it's time to toss them, according to health and safety experts. The Virginia Department of Health recommends that after three to four days, they be eaten, discarded, or frozen.
Each year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that one out of six Americans gets sick by consuming contaminated foods or beverages. And the Thanksgiving holiday offers prime conditions with shared food preparation, transportation and incorrect storage of leftovers.
Local health districts have not reported any problems this year. "Usually people are pretty good about getting rid of stuff quickly; they get rid of it quick because they're tired of it," said Larry Hill, public information officer for the health department's Eastern Region.
Likewise, local emergency departments have not reported unusual activity since the holiday, though there's a common stomach virus making the rounds in the community, according to Lynne Zultanky, spokeswoman for Bon Secours Hampton Roads. "It's caused by being in contact with others with the virus. Hand washing is essential to keeping it from spreading," she said.
The Denbigh location of Patient First in Newport News, which offers urgent care and primary care health services, also reported no significant food-borne illnesses over the holiday weekend. It saw its first patients exhibiting symptoms of the viral stomach bug on Monday, according to spokesman Taylor Robertson.
Typical symptoms of food-borne illness are vomiting, diarrhea, and flu-like symptoms, which can start anywhere from hours to several days after contact with an infected person, or after consuming contaminated food or drinks.
The most frequent gastrointestinal diseases reported to the Virginia Department of Health include bacterial infections, such as salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis, both of which may emerge several days after exposure. In addition, norovirus, spread through food handled by infected people, is a frequently reported cause of gastrointestinal outbreaks.
In each case, people without complications usually recover of their own accord; the VDH web site advises drinking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. The best prevention for all, whether bacterial or viral, involves thorough, frequent hand-washing.
While most food-borne illnesses result from food being contaminated when it is being prepared or served, others occur in the aftermath of the feast, or through contact with infected people.
The Department of Health offers these safety tips:
• Store leftovers under refrigeration, at 40 degrees F or below, within two hours of initially being left out.
• Reheat cooked leftovers to 165 degrees F as measured with a food thermometer. Sauces, soups and gravies should be reheated by bringing them to a boil. (Gravy and stuffing should be discarded within 48 hours, according to the Ohio State University Medical Center.)
• When microwaving leftovers, make sure there are no cold spots in food, where bacteria can survive.
• When transporting food, it is important to remember that harmful bacteria can start to grow when prepared food falls between temperatures of 40 and 140 degrees F.
• Turkey should be cut from the bone before storing; all food leftovers should be stored in shallow containers.
For more advice on safe handling of foods during the holidays and during emergencies, such as severe winter storms and power outages, go to http://www.vdh.state.va.us/news/FoodSafety/index.htm.
Salasky can be reached by phone at 757-247-4784.Copyright © 2015, CT Now