A 19-year-old college student was hospitalized with multiple organ failure and had his legs and his fingers amputated, according to a report by The New England Journal of Medicine.
He was later diagnosed with meningococcal purpura fulminan. The report noted that the student had eaten leftover rice, chicken and lo mein.
Experts told USA TODAY the condition is different from a foodborne illness triggered by bacteria such as salmonella. But the case has drawn renewed attention to safely storing and reheating leftovers.
How can you safely store your leftover rice or pasta dish? What about other leftovers? Here’s what you need to know about safely eating these foods.
Dr. Frank Esper of the center for pediatric infectious diseases at Cleveland Clinic Children’s told USA TODAY, “There’s a whole host of germs out there that you can get sick with” via food.
He said these germs can “grow in food that’s been left out too long, or can make a toxin in the food. Or sometimes it’s not even that the food would spoil but the food got contaminated.”
Experts warn against improperly storing leftover rice because rice, pasta and other foods contain a bacterium called Bacillus cereus. When heated and left out too long, the bacteria produce a toxin.
And this isn’t just a problem for rice. The bacterium can also be linked to sauces, soups and other leftovers left out at room temperature.
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Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietician nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic, told USA TODAY, “Cooking things properly will kill most of the bacteria, and then handling after to ensure that too much bacteria doesn’t grow” can help keep your food safe.
So let’s say you just finished a meal and want to store the leftovers. “Cooling your leftovers quickly, within two hours, to refrigerator or freezer temperatures is considered safe,” Zeratsky said.
“You want to help that food come down to refrigerator temperatures most quickly,” she said, adding that you can store food in a shallow container where it can spread out to cool down more quickly.
And if you want to reheat the food later, “it’s recommended that you reheat leftovers to a hot enough temperature, being 165 degrees, to ensure that it’s safe to eat, that that bacterial load has been controlled for.”
You can use a food thermometer to ensure food has reached 165 degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you’re microwaving food, you may want to check to see if it’s heated through.
All perishable foods left at room temperatures for more than two hours should be thrown away, according to the USDA. And if temperatures rise to more than 90 degrees in warmer months, throw perishable foods away that have been left out at room temperature for more than one hour.
Wondering about reheating that week-old pizza in the back of the fridge? Toss it. Leftovers can be refrigerated for three to four days. You can find additional safety tips on storing and reheating food here.
Esper said people who get sick from leftovers or contaminated food will often have symptoms that include “feeling sick in their stomach, cramps, belly pain, fever, vomiting, diarrhea.”
“There are people who are really, really prone to getting very ill from food illnesses,” he said, citing elderly people and children. He also said pregnant people, people taking medicine to suppress their immune systems and others can also be at risk.
“The vast majority of people who have problems with any of these infections or toxins following a foodborne illness is mainly dehydration. So if you’re able to keep drinking fluids and preventing yourself from getting too dry or too dehydrated, then you’ll probably be OK,” Esper said.
“But if you are in one of those high-risk groups or you can’t keep up with how much you’re throwing up, you can’t keep anything down, you’re lightheaded, then it’s time to talk to your doctor.”
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