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Don’t be a turkey, practice food safety for Thanksgiving meals

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture more than 45 million turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving Day. That’s more than 45 million opportunities for Food poisoning, not even counting side dishes.

Proper handling and cooking can prevent foodborne illness from spoiling a table of food, family, friends, and fun. Tips and tricks for a successful turkey day aren’t just for the kitchen, though


Thirsty? Do not drink water, coffee, tea or anything with ice on a plane. In an Environmental Protection Agency study, one in eight planes do not meet water safety standards. If you or your relatives are flying in for a bit of bird, stick to bottled water you buy at the gate.

Tray tables are another possible pitfall. Do not eat directly off the tray table; In TravelMath.com‘s discussion of a National Science Foundation study, tray tables house almost 10 times more bacteria than the flusher for the toilet. Use disinfecting wipes on surfaces once you buckle up, or better yet, eat out of the package or off a napkin.

Turkey talk 

Whether your turkey is at the top of your shopping list, or in your freezer, proper thawing and preparation can make or break your Thanksgiving feast. Turkey, like other meat, should never be defrosted on the counter top. The refrigerator is the safest method for thawing frozen turkey, which needs 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of weight. Once the turkey thaws it should be cooked within 1 to 2 days.

Turkey tub?

Wash your hands, not your turkey! Really, it does more harm than good. According to the USDA, 68 percent of consumers wash their poultry in the kitchen sink.

“Research shows that washing meat or poultry can splash bacteria around your kitchen by up to 3 feet, contaminating countertops, towels and other food.” The only way to eliminate bacteria is to cook your turkey to the correct internal temperature.

Thermometers matter

To view the entire infographic on turkey food safety, from freezer to leftover status, click on the image. Courtesy of the USDA, FDA and Ad Council

Always, always, always take the temperature of the turkey. No matter the cooking method, the only way to kill all bacteria is by cooking the turkey to the correct internal temperature as measured by a food thermometer.

The turkey’s temperature should be taken in three areas to make sure the entire bird is done: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the innermost part of the thigh. All three of these locations must reach 165 degrees F. If one does not, continue cooking until all three locations reach the correct internal temperature.

Two-hour rule

Mind the Danger-Zone.  All perishable foods should be tossed after sitting out for longer than two hours at room temperature. After two hours, these foods reach the “Danger Zone” of temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees where bacteria multiplies the quickest. Food sitting in the Danger Zone could be eaten by unaware guests, causing foodborne illness.

Tupperware tidbits

Turkey can be sliced into smaller pieces for the refrigerator along with other perishable items like potatoes, gravy and vegetables. With proper storage practices, leftovers can stay safe in the refrigerator for four days. View the USDA’s refrigeration guidelines here.


Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross, Purdue Extension educator in Elkhart County, suggests planning a preparation “timetable.” Such a plan starts by cooking foods that can be prepared well in advance and then frozen. Next, prepare dishes that can be stored in the refrigerator for a day or so. Save the most perishable foods to make on Thanksgiving Day.

“Consider the number of guests, the menu and the quantities of food. Be sure there is plenty of refrigerator space, heating units and hot serving to maintain correct temperatures. I encourage you to extend cold storage by cleaning out the refrigerator,” she recommends.

Insulated coolers packed with ice are a great option for day-of storage, or if food is being transported to another location. They can keep foods cold for several hours.

Tempting treats 

Last, but not least…

Pet owners shouldn’t give in to those big doggie eyes or purrs of affection. It can be tempting to feed food off the table to begging or patient pets, but such treats could send your furry friends to the hospital. Remind your family and guests that the following popular Thanksgiving foods are a “no-no” for animals:

Turkey skin and bones — swallowing can splinter in the throat, and fatty turkey skin can cause gastrointestinal distress and life threatening inflammation in the pancreas.

Turkey twine — string can cause choking, block intestines and carry salmonella bacteria.

Corn on the cob — the cobs can cause bowel obstruction, which requires surgery.

Garlic and Onions — damage red blood cells in dogs, which leads to anemia. Common, often delayed, symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea, weakness, and pale gums.

Grapes/Raisins — poisonous to dogs, can shut down their kidneys.

Gravy and trimmings — high fat content can cause gastrointestinal distress and life threatening inflammation.

Bread dough — yeast can continue to rise in a dogs’ stomachs, casuing bloating or a twisted stomach. Ethanol, a byproduct of fermenting yeast, can also be quickly absorbed into your dog’s blood stream and cause alcohol poisoning.

Chocolate — contains a chemical called theobromine, which dogs cannot metabolize. Small amounts will give your dogs vomiting and diarrhea, but chocolate in large quantities can produce seizures, muscle tremors, irregular heartbeats and sudden death.


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