Food Safety, Preparation and Storage Tips
Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, the University of Arizona

Staphylococcus aureus

Staphylococcal bacteria are very common. They are found in a wide variety of mammals and birds as well as on most surfaces. People are considered to be the main source associated with staphylococcal food poisoning. These bacteria are present in the nose, throat, hair, and skin of healthy persons. They are plentiful in cuts, pimples, and abscesses on people and their pets. Staphylococcus can live in high concentrations of salt and sugar where other bacteria would die. Some strains of Staphylococcus aureus are capable of producing a highly heat stable toxin. Staphylococcus grows best and multiplies rapidly between 68° and 99° F. Normal cooking temperatures will not destroy the toxin produced by this bacteria. This is why it is so important to wash your hands and always following good food handling practices when working with food.

Staph food poisoning results from growth and toxin production in food followed by eating the food containing the toxin. Symptoms of staph food-poisoning occur between 1 to 8 hours after eating the contaminated food. This food-borne illness can last for 6 to 24 hours. Complete recovery may take 2 days or longer in severe cases. The most common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and exhaustion.

Most often meat and meat products are the culprits in food poisoning. Other foods like poultry and egg products; salads containing egg, tuna, chicken, potato, and macaroni; cream filled bakery products; sandwich fillings; and milk and dairy products are also implicated in food poisoning cases. Ham, however, is the most common food reported in staph food poisoning cases. Foods that require lots of handling during preparation and are kept warm after preparation are the ones usually involved in staph food poisonings.

It is especially important to prevent growth of Staph. aureus since normal cooking temperatures do not destroy the toxin if it is present. Wash your hands thoroughly before handling food. Avoid handling food if you have an infected cut on your hands or cover your hands with a disposable rubber glove. Change disposable gloves when handling another food or you could contaminate the new one you’re working on. Thoroughly clean counter tops, cutting boards, and utensils. Eat cooked foods immediately. Hold hot foods at or above 140° F or cool them quickly in the refrigerator to 40° F. For rapid cooling, food should be stored in small portions in containers that are shallow about 2 to 4 inches deep. Leave them uncovered to allow heat to escape. Once the food reaches 40°, the food can be completely covered. One thing to remember--foods containing staph toxin usually look and taste normal. This is why it is SO important to clean up and sanitize as you go, hold food at the proper temperatures, and follow safe food handling and food preparation practices.


  • Bean N. H., J. S. Goulding, C. Lao, and F. J. Angulo. 1996. Surveillance for foodborne disease outbreaks - United States, 1988-1992. In: CDC Surveillance Summaries (Oct.) MMWR 45(SS-5):1-66.
  • Bergdoll, M. S. 1990. Staphylococcal food poisoning. In: Foodborne Diseases, pp. 85-106 . Cliver, D. O. ed. Academic Press, Inc. San Diego, CA.
  • CDC. 1997. Outbreak of Staphylococcal food poisoning associated with precooked ham. MMWR 46(50):1189-1191.
  • FDA/CFSAN. 1992. Staphylococcus aureus. In: FDA's Bad Bug Book: Food-borne Pathogenic Microorganisms and Natural Toxins Handbook. Chapter 3.
  • Staphylococcus aureus., 1998.

Material written by Ralph Meer and Scottie Misner, June 1998.
Part of Food Safety Tips, College of Agriculture, The University of Arizona
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