An unwelcome party guest might be lingering at your holiday buffetbacteria.

According to the U.S. Department of Agricultures Meat and Poultry Hotline , foodborne illnesses can result from bacteria that breed on foods left out over a long period.

Its better to be safe than sick,said Cindy Fitch, a registered dietitian and specialist with West Virginia University Extension’s Families and Health unit. There arent any obvious signs that a dish at a potluck has gone bad, so its up to you to use your own discretion when consuming foods at potlucks and buffets.

During the holiday season, WVU Extension features many food safety tips on its Web site ( ). The U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site ( ) also recommends the following guidelines to keep food safe this season:

After two hours at room temperature, any uneaten food should be discarded from the buffet. To prevent having to toss uneaten food, keep it at the proper temperature when serving buffet style. Hot foods should be 140 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. Achieve this by using chafing dishes, slow cookers and warming trays. Cold foods should be 40 degrees F or colder. Try using a nesting dish in a bowl of ice.

When making dishes in advance, use shallow containers for storing foods to ensure even cooling that helps prevent bacteria growth. Store cooked foods in the refrigerator or freezer until serving time. Reheat hot foods to 165 degrees F.

If guests empty a platter or bowl during the party, dont just refill it. Using a fresh dish reduces the spread of germs and bacteria.

When preparing food prior to the party, be sure to cook meats to a safe minimum internal temperature. Gauge the temperature by inserting a meat thermometer into the thickest portion of the meat. Cook beef, veal, lamb steaks, roasts and chops to 145 degrees F. Cook pork, ground beef, ground veal and ground lamb to 160 degrees F. All poultry dishes should be a minimum of 165 degrees F.

Consuming raw seafood, like oysters, is risky when it comes to buffets,Fitch said.Its incredibly hard to monitor a safe temperature for these foods when theyre exposed at a party. The best bet is to steer clear of uncooked meats.

People should always wash hands before and after handling food. Serve food on clean plates to minimize the transfer of bacteria. Never serve food on a plate that held raw meat because the bacteria might cross-contaminate the food.

WVU Extension Service provides solutions that work for families in all 55 counties.

For more information, people are encouraged to contact their local WVU Extension Service office.