With Thanksgiving and Christmas just around the corner you and your family will be hurrying to get the ham, turkey and sides prepared and served. This is the time when cooking mistakes can be made and your friends and family can become sick. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the majority of poultry-associated food-borne disease outbreaks in the United States stem from mistakes made when handling and preparing food or inadequate cooking.
The CDC reviewed outbreaks that were reported to the United States’ Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System in 2017, and reported that out of 14,481 illness outbreaks, 609 were caused by turkey, making it the “single food category associated with the most outbreak-related illness.”
To help you and your loved ones enjoy the holidays we would like to provide the following information:
Thaw your turkey properly
The preferred method is to keep your turkey in the refrigerator for several days. You can also thaw it in a sink under cold running water if you need to do it at the last minute.
The key to turkey preparation is making sure you defrost at a safe temperature. While your turkey remains in the freezer it is safe, but you should never leave it to defrost on the counter. When it is left out for over 2 hours, the temperature on the outside of the turkey can become unsafe. Once the temperature reaches what the CDC refers to as the “danger zone,” 40°F to 140°F, bacteria will quickly grow.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not recommend that consumers wash their turkeys in the kitchen sink. However, according to the 2019 Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Survey, about 2/3rds of consumers still do. People who wash the turkey in the kitchen sink risk splashing bacteria around the kitchen, which could contaminate the environment. Washing your turkey does not eliminate bacteria – you have to properly cook your turkey to kill the bacteria.
Cheyenne Laramie County Public Health does not recommend stuffing your turkey before cooking. The safest way to cook stuffing is in a separate dish, because even though the turkey may be cooked to the correct temperature, the stuffing inside it may not have reached the same safe temperature to eliminate bacteria. However, if your tradition is to stuff your turkey, the CDC recommends putting the stuffing in the turkey just before cooking. Use a food thermometer to gauge that the stuffing’s center has reached 165°F. After removing the turkey from the oven, you should wait 20 minutes before removing the stuffing from the turkey’s cavity; this gives it time to cook a little longer.
It is important to make sure that your turkey is cooked to the correct internal temperature, which you can measure by using a food thermometer. The oven should be set to at least 325°F. The turkey should be completely thawed and placed breast side up in a roasting pan 2 to 2 ½ inches thick, according to the CDC. While the turkey is cooking, the USDA recommends testing for doneness in the following 3 areas: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh. All 3 areas should be 165°F.
Desserts and leftovers
Pumpkin, pecan and cream pies can also be a source of bacterial infection when not handled properly. Once prepared, these types of pies need to be kept refrigerated until use.
When serving your foods, do not leave it out on the counter for more than 2 hours because bacteria, such as Clostridium perfringens, will grow. According to the CDC, C. perfringens is the second most common cause of food poisoning. Outbreaks from these bacteria most commonly spring up around Thanksgiving and Christmas and have been linked to foods that are commonly served throughout the holiday season. It is vital to put all leftovers in the refrigerator, which should be set no warmer than 40°F. Leftovers should not be left in the refrigerator for longer than 4 days. If you plan to save leftovers for more than a couple of days, they should be frozen until ready to use.
When you are ready to reheat leftovers, it is important to heat the food to at least 165°F within two hours to prevent the food from growing bacteria during the reheating process.
Most importantly, throughout the cooking and cleaning, and prior to eating make sure to wash your hands thoroughly.
For more information on proper food handling please feel free to contact one of the food safety specialists at the Cheyenne Laramie County Health Department. You can reach them at 307-633-4090.