How to avoid foodborne illness on Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I get to see my whole family, my mom cooks way too much food and I end up with enough leftovers to have turkey sandwiches and pumpkin pie through the weekend.

In the past, I haven’t been expected to help with the cooking too much. I think the only reason my mom is entrusting me with more than cleanup duties, now, is because she wants dinner to be more of a bonding experience. I can appreciate that and am more than happy to help. But before I jump right into the fold, I thought it might be a good idea to brush up on some Thanksgiving safety tips.

Thanksgiving is about food, family, football and more food. Stomach flu isn’t on the agenda.

Quick tips

When you sit down to give thanks this year, take a moment to appreciate the hard work that went into the meal sitting in front of you. We all appreciate a delicious Thanksgiving turkey, flanked by all the fixings of the holiday. Dare I say, we expect delicious food for Thanksgiving. However, a lot goes into Thanksgiving dinner. Be grateful someone took the time to prepare one for you.

Whether you’re cooking dinner, helping with preparation or lending a hand with cleanup, always remember to follow these four rules to ensure food safety:

  1. Clean. Be sure to thoroughly clean your hands, food preparation surfaces, ovens and refrigerators.
  2. Separate. Keep meats and raw foods, such as fruits and vegetables, separated to avoid cross-contamination.
  3. Chill. Make sure you put leftovers away quickly. The temperature in your refrigerator should be under 40 F.
  4. Cook. Use a food thermometer to make sure you cook your turkey and accompanying foods to the correct temperature.

Safe thawing

If you’re preparing Thanksgiving dinner this year, thawing your bird will be the first hurdle to clear. The golden rule for thawing a frozen turkey is that it must be kept at a safe temperature the entire time. Three safe methods include refrigerator thawing, cold water thawing and microwave thawing.

  1. Refrigerator thawing. To thaw your turkey in the refrigerator, you need to plan ahead, allowing about 24 hours for each four to five pounds of turkey. To keep the bird at a safe temperature while it’s thawing, make sure your refrigerator is set at 40 F or below. You also want to use a container to put your turkey inside while it thaws to prevent juices from dripping on other foods, contaminating them.
  2. Cold water thawing. If you didn’t plan ahead enough to thaw your turkey in the refrigerator, no big deal, you can safely thaw your frozen bird out by submerging it in cold water. Plan for about 30 minutes of thaw time for every pound of turkey. Make sure your turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross contamination and water absorption. Then submerge it in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Once it is thawed cook it immediately.
  3. Microwave thawing. You can thaw your turkey in the microwave by following the manufacturer’s instructions for defrosting. Make sure to cook it immediately after thawing as some areas of the turkey may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving.

Safe cooking

There are many ways to safely cook a turkey — roasting, deep-frying (link), grilling, smoking. But no matter how you cook it, the magic number is the same. You want to make sure your food thermometer reads 165 F, ensuring a safe internal temperature has been reached to destroy bacteria and prevent foodborne illness.

To measure your turkey’s internal temperature, you should insert your thermometer into the thickest part of its breast, the innermost part of its wing and the innermost part of its thigh.

The USDA gives these examples of variables that can affect the cooking time of a roasted whole turkey:

  • A partially frozen turkey requires longer cooking.
  • A stuffed turkey takes longer to cook.
  • The oven may heat food unevenly.
  • Temperature of the oven may be inaccurate.
  • Dark roasting pans cook faster than shiny metals.
  • The depth and size of the pan can reduce heat circulation to all areas of the turkey.
  • The use of a foil tent for the entire time can slow cooking.
  • Use of the roasting pan’s lid speeds cooking.
  • An oven cooking bag can accelerate cooking time.
  • The rack position can have an effect on even cooking and heat circulation.
  • A turkey or its pan may be too large for the oven, thus blocking heat circulation.

Stuffing

As you just read, stuffed turkeys take longer to cook, but increased cooking time isn’t the only issue. Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences suggests it’s best not to stuff your bird at all because placing stuffing into a raw turkey exposes it to the bacterial pathogens uncooked poultry can harbor. Stuffing is very porous, so as the turkey cooks, it is exposed to, and may absorb, juices that could contain bacterial pathogens such as salmonella. Unless the stuffing is cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F, also, it is unsafe to eat.

Just because the turkey reached 165 F doesn’t guarantee the stuffing did. The safest route is to cook the stuffing separately and put it in the turkey once it is fully cooked.

Additional safety tips

  • Don’t wash your turkey. Washing poultry products isn’t beneficial and can spread bacteria around your kitchen in the process. The only way to destroy the bacteria on your turkey is to cook it to a safe minimum temperature of 165 F.
  • Leftovers. Don’t leave food sitting out for more than two hours after cooking. If you have guests that come to eat throughout the day, keep food heated in chafing dishes. Never let food reach dangerous temperatures for bacteria growth — between 40 and 140 F.
  • Traveling with food. If you’re planning to travel to a family member’s house with a side dish, consider the distance you have to travel and what type of food you’re making for Thanksgiving. Avoid leaving perishable foods at room temperature for longer than two hours, which includes preparation time for foods that aren’t cooked. When traveling with hot food, keep it heated to 140 F or higher. When traveling with cold food, keep it chilled to 40 F or below.

Where to call for help

If you have food-safety questions on Thanksgiving day and need to reach an expert, call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline, 1-888-674-6854. The hotline will be staffed with food specialists from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time on Thanksgiving.

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