Don’t Quarantine the Turkey! Holiday Food Safety Tips

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We are just one week away from Thanksgiving! Some of us prepare for the holidays by making sure we have the perfect table setting, some start Christmas shopping, and some talk about the football game scheduled for the big day. But others of us look at the kitchen and have only one thought, “oh please don’t let my cooking kill the in-laws”! While sometimes in-laws can be irritating, you would never wish upon them the horrible fate of a holiday foodborne illness.

While it is not treated with the same concern as COVID, RSV, or the flu, food-borne illnesses are a danger much more common than we realize, and sometimes quite severe. In 2019 the United States Department of Agriculture reported 48 million episodes of foodborne illness and 3,000 deaths occur per year. The good news is that by following a few easy steps and treating every bird as if it is contaminated you can protect yourself and your family.

The holiday season is often filled with guests, but some are unwanted — like the pathogens found on food that has been mishandled. First, there is Listeria which is like one of those unwanted party guests that will not leave and haunts the leftovers in the refrigerator. It can usually be found in the cold foods served at buffets like deli meats and smoked salmon. Then there is Clostridium Prefingens, which is most fond of meat, meat products, and gravy. It tends to lurk in foods served in quantities that have been left out at room temperature. Staphylococcus Aureus gets into food and multiples rapidly at room temperature to produce a toxin that causes illness within 1-6 hours. It hangs out in foods that are made by hand and do not require additional cooking. Some other pathogens that have been linked to holiday meals are Salmonella and Campylobacter. Campylobacter can be found in close to half of commercially available poultry, but will only make you sick if you mishandle the turkey. Mishandling food causes pathogens to grow to a toxic level which can then make you sick. All these nasty pathogens that could be present on your turkey may make you want to place it in quarantine. Before you lock your turkey away, let me give you a few pointers on how to safely thaw, cook and store your bird.

First, when thawing a turkey make sure to follow the package recommendations. Many will direct you to thaw in the refrigerator for several days depending on the size. But this usually requires that you remember and plan to remove the turkey from the freezer several days ahead of time. For some of us, it is likely we will find ourselves in need of a quick thawing technique. However one of those techniques is not to leave it out on the counter at room temperature. If you leave the turkey at room temperature for more than two hours not only will you probably not have a fully thawed bird but the surface of the bird could have been left in the “danger zone” (according to the USDA 40-140°F). At this temperature pathogens can grow to a level that is toxic, causing a foodborne illness.

Instead, a quick way to thaw a turkey would be cold water thawing. Place the turkey in a leakproof plastic bag then submerge it in cold water which should be changed every 30 minutes. You can calculate about 30 minutes for every pound. You can also try the microwave. There should be instructions on the package for this method.

Now that the bird has thawed you will want to handle it carefully. Every surface that comes in contact with the turkey could become contaminated with any pathogens on the bird. We call this cross-contamination. It is important to clean and sanitize utensils, work surfaces, and hands that come in contact with the turkey. You will want to resist the urge to wash your bird! Washing the turkey can also cause cross-contamination. In fact, U.K. Food Standards found that bacteria already present on poultry can travel up to 3 feet from where the meat was washed. So forgo bathing the bird. It is also recommended not to stuff the turkey. If you like stuffing it can be made safest outside the turkey in a casserole dish. Not only is it safer, but you will not have to add extra time for thorough cooking which can cause the meat to be dry. When you think you have cooked your turkey the recommended amount of time, make sure to use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. Poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F. Check the temperature in multiple places and make sure the thermometer does not touch the bone.

Now for the storage. First, let’s remember that we should not leave food in the “danger zone” (40-140°F) for more than two hours. If it is left out it should be reheated to 165°F. The best way to store your leftover turkey in the refrigerator is to carve the whole turkey then place small portions in 1-quart resealable bags. For the quickest cooling, it is best to place the bags directly on the shelf and not stacked on top of one another because that will allow heat to be trapped between the two bags. Your goal is to quickly cool the turkey.

Following these simple steps can fight off those unwanted holiday guests. And it means a safe and happy Thanksgiving for everyone, well, except maybe the turkey! Good luck and Happy Thanksgiving!

For more information about food safety contact Olivia Patchel via email at or via phone at 252-232-2261.