In Short

U.S. food safety experts offer tips for Thanksgiving

By: - November 22, 2021 11:44 am
Man carving cooked turkey

Be careful cooking turkey, (Andrew Zaeh/Getty Images)

The pandemic has not gone away, but the focus on Thursday will be on food and loved ones, not on disease.

But Thanksgiving can also be a source of illness if you don’t follow food safety rules. Turkeys, like chicken, can harbor campylobacter and salmonella, which are commonly found in the guts and feathers of the birds, so it’s important to be careful when storing and preparing turkey meat. 

Every year the U.S. Department of Agriculture and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publish reminders to keep people from getting sick. Here are the basics:

Thaw: Frozen turkeys stay safe indefinitely. But when they thaw, bacteria begin to grow. 

Federal food safety experts recommend thawing turkeys in a container in the refrigerator for one to two days. It’s very important to ensure that juices do not drip or contaminate other foods. 

You can also thaw turkeys in an enclosed container or plastic bag in cold water or in the microwave following the defrost instructions. Never, however, thaw a turkey on the counter because that can encourage the proliferation of germs. It is also safe to cook a frozen or partially frozen bird. It just takes longer.

Prepare: Wash your hands with hot soapy water for 20 seconds – the birthday song is the right length – before and after handling raw meat, especially poultry. That will help prevent cross-contamination. Also, do not rinse or wash turkeys. Doing so can put yourself and your family at risk by splattering germs and contaminating dishware, utensils or other food. 

Stuff: Food safety experts advise cooking stuffing separately to ensure it’s thoroughly cooked. If you stuff the turkey, put it in right before cooking. With either method, use a food thermometer to make sure the stuffing’s center reaches 165 degrees. 

Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached that temperature, potentially making someone sick. If you cook stuffing in the turkey, wait 20 minutes after taking the bird out of the oven before removing it; this allows it to cook a little more.

Cook: Set the oven temperature to at least 325 degrees and cook the bird in a roasting pan at least 2 inches deep. Cooking times will vary depending on the size of the turkey. It will be properly cooked when the internal temperature is 165 degrees. Insert a food thermometer in the thickest portion of a breast, thigh or wing joint to test it. Federal officials advise using a food thermometer even if the bird has a pop-up one.

Let the turkey stand 20 minutes before removing all stuffing from the cavity and carving it.

Aftermath: Follow the two-hour rule for leaving perishable food out. In temperatures 90 degrees and hotter, there’s a one-hour rule. After those deadlines, the bacteria Clostridium perfringens grows in cooked foods. It’s the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning. If you pass those times, toss the food out.

Refrigerate leftovers at 40 degrees or colder as soon as possible and within those time frames. Food safety experts recommend dividing big cuts of meat into smaller portions so that they cool quickly in the refrigerator. Reheat all leftovers to at least 165 degrees.

For more details, check the USDA’s food safety tips for Thanksgiving.


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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.