The holiday season is a time to give thanks, be merry, mingle, and jingle. And that’s not limited to our social lives. Spreading goodwill and cheer at office parties is very popular this time of year. Over the next several weeks, many workplaces will host holiday potlucks. We’ll bring our favorite dishes from home and look forward to what our coworkers will contribute to the celebration. But, as the excitement builds and the cooking begins, a workplace hazard lurks—foodborne illness. Bacteria can develop in certain foods left at room temperature for two hours or more, possibly causing foodborne illness.

What is foodborne illness?

At an office party, foodborne illness can occur when people eat certain items that were either undercooked or left out at room temperature for too long. Eggs, raw egg products, meat, seafood, and even fruits and vegetables (if not properly washed) are some of the most common offenders. Further risk is possible if a person preparing food did not properly wash their hands and/or guard against coughing or sneezing near the food preparation area. In any of these cases bacteria can develop in or on the food and cause people to get sick.

Steps to keep the party safe

Here are some easy solutions that will allow you to have fun with your coworkers and reduce the risk of getting sick. To start, wash your hands before preparing or handling food. Also, do not thaw meat on the countertop. Instead, follow federal food safety guidelines for thawing food. For the party itself, here are some other steps to follow:

  • Observe the two-hour rule: don’t let foods sit at room temperature for more than two hours. For refrigerated items like deviled eggs, consider putting a few out at a time and replenishing when needed. Place hot foods in crockpots, chaffing dishes, or on warming plates to maintain a safe temperature. Read about the “Danger Zone” for more information about holding food within safe temperatures.

  • Cover food containers in the buffet line when not in use.
  • Use large spoons, forks, wax paper, tongs, and other serving tools to avoid touching food by hand.
  • And, if you suspect anything has been out too long, remember this simple rule: ‘When in doubt, throw it out.