HARLINGEN, Texas (ValleyCentral) — As many put holiday feasts out for friends and family to enjoy, health experts want to be sure you know leaving food out for too long can lead to sickness.

The city of Harlingen’s health department director, Josh Ramirez, said harmful organisms can be in meat and plant-based foods and those organisms can multiply.

Ramirez explained that it is important to handle, prepare, and store food properly to avoid any health issues.

“E. coli which is the most common one that people tend to forget which is something that comes in the meat products and it grows pretty fast under the right conditions,” he said.

He said cross-contamination and temperature can cause the organisms such as E.coli to grow.

“It is when it becomes dangerously high in numbers when it reaches the room temperature over three hours, then it starts growing and reproducing that the body cannot handle and process that and that’s when you become sick,” said Ramirez.

 He recommended keeping foods under 38 degrees Fahrenheit or at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher to prevent organisms from growing and said there is a lot of misinformation out about storing hot foods in the refrigerator.

“The problem is when you put a huge pot that is about seven to eight inches deep with food items in the refrigerator. You need to understand that in order for the cooling to reach the center it may take about eight hours if it’s hot already,” he said,

He said using shallow pans or trays to store hot foods in the refrigerator will help cool the food faster making it safer to eat later.

However, he said there are also limits to how long you can store leftovers before they become unsafe.

“Don’t let it go more than three days to eat that fresh product, they’re good up to seven days if the refrigerator is working correctly and you have the temperature set at the right levels for that product,” he said.

Ramirez said symptoms such as stomach aches, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and chills after consuming food you may think has gone bad or left out for too long, should be taken seriously.

“If you start feeling symptoms, consult your doctor right away, don’t let it go too long, don’t say ‘well it will pass,’ because you may risk running into a greater problem, end up in a hospital, or possibly die as well,” said Ramirez.