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Thanksgiving From a Food-Safety Perspective

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When Americans sit down to Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, they will be celebrating their good fortune in having enough to eat – and, hopefully, they will be eating safely.

The Partnership for Food Safety Education recommends memorizing four simple words to help make sure that foodborne illness isn’t an unwelcome guest at your Thanksgiving table. The words are: clean, separate, cook, chill.

As illustrated in this video, the four words and their associated guidelines are simple but essential to follow:

  • Clean: Keep kitchen bacteria levels down by regularly cleaning hands, cutting boards, knives and countertops. Before and after handling food, wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. Rinse or scrub fruits and veggies under running water before eating.
  • Separate: Bacteria spread from cross-contamination, so never put cooked, ready-to-eat foods on any surface where raw meat, poultry, seafood or their juices have been.
  • Cook: Bacteria can survive lower temperatures, so be sure you have properly prepared and cooked foods. You can’t tell if something is cooked safety by how it looks, so make sure by using a food thermometer.
  • Chill: Chill leftover food promptly (within two hours is best) and properly because bacteria spread fastest between 40-140 degrees F. Make sure your refrigerator temperature is 40 degrees F. or below.

Thanksgiving turkey preparations

Before buying a turkey, make enough room for it in your refrigerator. If you buy a frozen turkey, thaw it in the refrigerator or in a pan of cold water (changing the water every half-hour). Never thaw a turkey at room temperature.

It takes time for a large frozen turkey to thaw out in the refrigerator, so allow several days. If you’re getting a fresh turkey, buy it one or two days before it will be cooked and keep it refrigerated in the meantime.

Some people swear by fresh turkeys; others say that frozen are better. Turkeys are also available that have previously been frozen but are defrosted before being offered for purchase.

Decide what size turkey you need. The general rule of thumb is one pound of uncooked turkey per person.

How turkeys are labeled

There is an ever-increasing variety of labels consumers will see on turkeys available in this country. Here are the usual ones, as regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Fresh: This designation means that the turkey has never been chilled below 26 degrees F. Experts advise checking the “sell by” or “use by” date to make sure how fresh the turkey really is.

Not Previously Frozen: This label means that the turkey has been chilled below 26 degrees F. but not below 0 degrees F. Therefore, it can’t legally be labeled as “fresh” but doesn’t need to be labeled as frozen.

Natural: The turkey has been minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients or added coloring. However, this label doesn’t mean that the turkey wasn’t given antibiotics, and it has nothing to do with how the turkey was raised.

Kosher: This denotes that the turkey was raised only on grain and was not given antibiotics. Such turkeys are soaked in salt brine and processed and inspected under the supervision of a rabbi.

Free Range: This label means the grower has a part of the operation open to a common yard where the turkeys can go if they choose. Regardless of how many actually do, all the processed birds from such an operation may legally be labeled as “Free Range.”

Organic: The turkey was raised without antibiotics or growth enhancers, had access to the outdoors, and was only given organic feed. This designation is also meant to guarantee that no ionizing radiation or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were involved in raising or processing the turkey.

There are additional designations such as “Heritage” and “Sustainable” being applied to certain turkeys these days, including labels indicating that the turkey has been raised using sustainable best practices which have been third-party certified.

(For more about raising and processing turkeys, here is a video tour featuring Dr. Temple Grandin, animal science professor at Colorado State University.)

Cooking your Thanksgiving turkey

No matter what type of turkey you buy, the most important food-safety consideration is to cook it to a minimum temperature of 165 degrees F. as measured by a food thermometer. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and thickest part of the breast. This advice holds whether you plan to roast, bake, barbecue, deep-fry, microwave, or even smoke your turkey.

If you are going to stuff the turkey, combine the ingredients and stuff the turkey just before it will be cooked. You need about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. The stuffing also needs to be cooked to a minimum 165 degrees F. If the turkey is done but the stuffing isn’t yet at that temperature, remove the stuffing and bake it separately in a greased casserole dish.

When roasting your turkey in an oven, set the temperature at 325 degrees F. Stuffed turkeys take longer than unstuffed ones, so be sure and follow these timetables:

Unstuffed
4 to 6 lb. breast …… 1-1/2 to 2-1/4 hours
6 to 8 lb. breast …… 2-1/4 to 3-1/4 hours
8 to 12 lbs. ………… 2-3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 lbs. ………… 3 to 3-3/4 hours
14 to 18 lbs. ………… 3-3/4 to 4-1/4 hours
18 to 20 lbs. ………… 4-1/4 to 4-1/2 hours
20 to 24 lbs. ………… 4-1/2 to 5 hours

Stuffed
8 to 12 lbs. …… 3 to 3-1/2 hours
12 to 14 lbs. …… 3-1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 lbs. …… 4 to 4-1/4 hours
18 to 20 lbs. …… 4-1/4 to 4-3/4 hours
20 to 24 lbs. …… 4-3/4 to 5-1/4 hours

Carving, serving and storing leftovers

After the turkey is done, let it rest for at least 20 minutes before carving and use a clean cutting board and a sharp knife. Remove stuffing and slice the turkey, and remember not to leave the turkey or any other food at room temperature for more than two hours before refrigerating.

Divide leftover turkey into smaller portions, put it in shallow containers and store it in the refrigerator or freezer. Be sure to use leftovers within a few days and to heat them back up to 165 degrees F. If you microwave leftover turkey, be sure to cover, stir and rotate it so the turkey is evenly cooked.

Food safety resources

For more information about how to safely handle, serve and store your holiday food, call 1-888-SAFEFOOD (FDA), 1-888-MPHOTLINE (USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline), email mphotline.fsis@usda.gov, or visit AskKaren.gov.

For some statistics, history, and FAQs about our native bird, visit the National Turkey Federation website.

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