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Could Your “Doggie Bag” Be Doubly Dangerous? Certain Leftovers Have Higher Risk for Food Poisoning.

Could your doggie bag lead to food poisoning? Certain leftovers have a higher risk of spreading foodborne bacteria that can make you sick.

Eating out is expensive. Probably now, more than ever. We still continue to eat out, albeit at a less rate than historical trends.

Many Americans offset this expense by saving some of their meal for a lunch the next day. If handled properly, it can be a great money-saving tip. However, certain frugalities can lead to food disasters.

This is not a new trend. In fact, the term “doggy bag” has been around for quite a while. In most cases, however, it has been adjusted to keep up with the times. What used to be described as taking home bones and leftovers for Fido, has become carefully packaged meals for later consumption.

Planning on a “doggy bag?” Here’s what you need to know about what levers have higher risk of food poisoning and how to plan your take-away safely.

Some Food Leftovers Have Higher Risk Factors

While any food can become contaminated, certain cooked foods have a higher risk of making you sick if left out for just a little too long. This danger is compounded when the bacteria causing the illness makes toxins that cannot be killed by heat.

One toxin-producing bacteria that is a common cause of food poisoning is called Bacillus cereus.

Bacillus cereus is related to another well-known Bacillus bacteria – Bacillus anthracis. Sound familiar? Bacillus anthracis is the bacteria associated with Anthrax. Fortunately, while Bacillus cereus is dangerous, it is not Anthrax.

Bacillus cereus is known for a type of illness called “fried rice syndrome.” It is most associated with leftover fried rice and rice products. This is because these bacteria produce spores and thrive in starchy food. Think rice, pasta, and potato dishes.

Starchy foods, however, are not the only food categories commonly contaminated with Bacillus cereus.

Other leftovers have higher risk for Bacillus cereus contamination. Including:

  • Soups
  • Sauces
  • Casseroles
  • Puddings
  • Pastries
  • Salads
  • Cheese

Food sitting at room temperature is vulnerable to these bacteria, allowing them to reproduce in infectious numbers and make harmful toxins that will make you sick.

Why Is It Called “Fried Rice Syndrome?”

If other food and leftovers have higher risk of foodborne illness as well, why is it still called fried rice syndrome? With leftover rice being a common culprit for Bacillus cereus infection, and fried rice being the most associated food type responsible for the illness, it has been dubbed fried rice syndrome.

But why is fried rice so risky?

It all comes down to how it is cooked. Fried rice is usually made by cooking rice, then leaving it at room temperature a bit to cool it before frying it with other ingredients. This helps the texture of fried rice, making it less clumpy or soggy.

If the rice is left at room temperature for more than two hours, bacteria are given free reign to multiply and produce toxins. The bacteria may be killed from the additional cooking step. The toxins, on the other hand, remain intact.

This correlation gives Bacillus cereus infections the namesake, fried rice syndrome.

How Common Are Bacillus Cereus Infections?

Recent statistics indicate that Bacillus cereus infections, often referred to as fried rice syndrome, cause an estimated 63,000 cases of foodborne illness in the United States each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this germ is responsible for around 2 to 5% of all foodborne illnesses in the United States.

However, this data is likely on the lean side. Most cases of foodborne illness go unreported. This is because the majority of those who become sick will experience mild symptoms and opt to recover on their own without medical assistance.

Symptoms of Bacillus Cereus Infection

Bacillus cereus infection symptoms are caused by toxins the bacteria produce. There are two toxins this germ makes, resulting in two different illness types. One toxin causes diarrhea, the other vomiting.

The first type of toxin is released as the bacteria make their way into the small intestine. These symptoms usually begin around 6 to 15 hours after consuming food contaminated with Bacillus cereus bacteria. Common symptoms include diarrhea, cramps, and occasionally nausea, but rarely vomiting. The foods associated with this type of illness include meats, vegetables, and fish. Symptoms associated with this toxin usually subside after about a day.

The second type of toxin is created by bacteria in the food before it is consumed. These symptoms begin much quicker, usually happening within 30 minutes to 6 hours after consuming food contaminated with Bacillus cereus bacteria and its toxins. Common symptoms include vomiting and nausea. Foods associated with this type of illness include stereotypical starchy foods, like rice and pasta. People usually feel better after around 24 hours.

In some cases, though rare, Bacillus cereus infection can be fatal. These usually involve food left out for very extended periods of time and/or untreated severe symptoms.

To be safe, monitor all symptoms and seek medical attention if you become seriously ill.

To be safer, use some “doggy bag” common sense and handle your leftovers safely.

Keeping Leftovers Safe

As a rule of thumb, hot foods should be kept hot and cold foods should be kept cold. The “danger zone” lies between those two ranges.

Foods left between 40 °F and 140 °F for more than two hours should be discarded. This time period drops to one hour if the ambient temperature is over 90 °F.

If food is prepared safely, that means you have two hours from the time it is served to get it in the fridge. Depending on the social situation or how far you live from the restaurant, it could be do-able.

If you are planning for dessert. And coffee. And a long conversation. You may be well over that two hours by the time your leftovers make it home.

Does this mean you shouldn’t keep your leftovers?

Not necessarily. A few proactive measures can keep your leftovers safe to enjoy the next day.

Have conversation first.

Catch up over drinks and/or appetizers before ordering your meal. Doing so allows you to have the bulk of your socialization before the main dish arrives. It reduces the social pressure to extend the meal past dessert or coffee. This, in turn, reduces the amount of time your leftovers hang out at room temperature.

Bring an insulated cooler and ice packs.

Consider bringing an insulated cooler with icepacks if you do not plan to go home right away. If you are likely to have leftovers, this is your safest bet. Getting your leftovers chilled as quickly as possible helps reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and the toxins they produce. This is an especially important option if you do not plan to go home immediately following the meal. Dinner and a movie? No problem. Pack extra ice packs.

Ask for larger containers.

The thinner the layer, the faster your food can chill to refrigerator temperatures. Asking for a larger container can help you store your food more safely and ensure it gets colder faster. Small, tall piles of food cool faster on the outside than on the inside, leaving the inside longer at higher temperatures longer. Keep in mind the insulated container you packed, if you heeded the advice above, but request the largest container that will fit your needs and your cooler.

Dine Out with Confidence

Dine out with confidence and ask for that doggy bag.  Even when leftovers have higher risk of foodborne illness, you can still handle them safely to save money and your health.

Stay in Touch with Make Food Safe!

If you’d like to know more about food safety topics in the news, like Certain Leftovers Have Higher Risk for Food Poisoning, check out the Make Food Safe Blog. We regularly update trending topics, foodborne infections in the news, recalls, and more! Stay tuned for quality information to help keep your family safe, while The Lange Law Firm, PLLC strives to Make Food Safe!

By: Heather Van Tassell (contributing writer, non-lawyer)

Heather Van Tassell

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