Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate family and friends, enjoy the fall harvest, and to stuff our faces full of delicious food.  No matter your specific traditions, I’m certain the stuffing-of-faces is common across all Thanksgiving tables. I must confess, I’ve never prepared a full Thanksgiving meal although I have contributed dishes.  When I cook any time of year, not just for Thanksgiving, I have two goals: 1) Make delicious food and 2) Not make people sick.  Both require following some simple rules – for #1, a recipe.  For #2, a set of rules that I’ve learned from the Food Safety Team at APHL. Rules that effectively put bacteria on a stake in your front yard as a warning to all other bacteria saying “You are not welcome here! You will be cooked properly!”  Not following these rules means inviting Auntie Campylobacter and Cousin Salmonella to your table.  Unless you would like to spend the best shopping weekend of the year doubled over with a fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps, pay attention.  And, truth be told, these rules don’t just apply to Thanksgiving. Roughly half of all meat in the U.S. is contaminated with some sort of bacteria.  While that is pretty gross, you can follow these rules to avoid the grossness: 1. DO. NOT. RINSE.  Did you hear me?  Don’t listen to your grandmother and her grandmother and all the grandmothers who tell you to rinse your poultry.  DO NOT RINSE YOUR POULTRY.  I’ve got science on my side on this one, Grandma!  Rinsing your poultry – any bird, not just turkey – can actually cause bacteria to aerosolize (how’s that for an image?) and spread around your kitchen up to three feet! Three feet!  That’s really far!  Within three feet of my sink, I have my spice rack, cooking utensils, coffee pot and my baby’s bottles sitting on a drying rack.  What is within three feet of your sink?  Yeah… gross, huh? Plus, it is completely unnecessary.  Rinsing poultry does nothing to get rid of most bacteria – the bacteria that it does eliminate are now splashing around your kitchen.  What does eliminate bacteria? Proper cooking (we’ll get to that).  We aren’t the only ones who will tell you this.  Our friend, USDA, agrees.   And, from a cook’s perspective, you really want a dry skin on your poultry so it can get nice and crispy. 2. Avoid cross contamination.  When you handle that big beautiful bird, make sure nothing else is around.  You don’t want any of those raw turkey juices getting on anything that you can’t immediately clean.  If Tom needs to be trimmed, use a separate cutting board and knife than you plan to use for your veggies.  Did you happen to see Dr. Richard Besser on The Chew talking about safe food handling?  Cross contamination can happen to the best of us, but we should do everything we can to prevent it. 3. Wash your hands.  Wash your hands.  Wash your hands.  What was that?  Wash your hands.  You cannot wash your hands too much while handling raw meat.  Think about everything you touch while preparing food – utensils, towels, the countertop, your clothes, your body (why does my nose always itch when I’m cutting up chicken?), even the soap dispenser.  Washing your hands properly will help keep all that bacteria from making its way onto every item in your kitchen.  And if it does get on another surface, wash it. 4. Don’t thaw your turkeysicle on the counter.  The raw turkey needs to be kept at 40 degrees.  If you thaw it on the counter, the outside (the part that is defrosting the fastest) will likely get warmer than 40 degrees and therefore become more susceptible to bacteria.  Thaw your turkey either in the fridge or in cold water.  Yes, it takes a very long time to thaw a big bird that way so be prepared!  Here is a handy chart with thawing times.  Another good tip – put your turkey in a dish while it sits in the fridge.  You would hate to find out about that tiny hole in the plastic while it is defrosting… a flood of raw turkey juices in your fridge is not so pretty.  Er, so I’ve heard. 5. Cook your turkey to a safe temperature – which also means getting a good meat thermometer.  All poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees.  We’ll talk about stuffing next, but if you plan to cook your stuffing inside of your turkey that means it also needs to be cooked to 165 degrees.  It is that simple, folks.  Pay no attention to those popper things that come in the turkey.  Check the temperature yourself.  Unlike with your kids, you actually want your turkey to have a fever of 165. Recipe 6. Let’s talk about stuffing.  First of all, I’m from the South where we call it dressing.  For the sake of food safety, we should all call it dressing.  Why?  Because stuffing can be unsafe because it is stuffing.  Let’s break this down… you fill the cavity of the bird with stuffing so that Tom’s delicious juices add great flavor to your stuffing.  Correct?  As we discussed above (see points one through, well, all of them), Tom’s juices are loaded with bacteria.  Those bacteria are now in your stuffing in the center of the turkey, the part that is farthest from the heat source and therefore takes the longest to reach a safe temperature (165 degrees).   So you have two choices.  You could: 1) Cook the turkey to its perfect temperature while it is still perfectly moist, serving it with the stuffing that is not cooked to the perfect temperature and therefore at risk of carrying bacteria that is going to send your guests home with a party favor they did NOT ask for, or 2) Cook the bird and the stuffing until the stuffing in the center is cooked to a safe temperature thus overcooking and drying out your turkey.  If I had to pick from those options – undercooked stuffing or overcooked turkey – I’d choose… tofuky.  There are two secret options that mean everybody wins.  Either 1) Cook your stuffing separately.  Use a delicious, rich stock (chicken, turkey, or vegetable) to add the flavor you’re looking for.  I promise it will taste good.  Or 2) Cooking the stuffing in the bird, remove it, and continue cooking it outside of the turkey until it reaches a safe 165 degrees.  Recipe 7. Avoid BPAs.  Now, this next “rule” is really more of a suggestion.  I think by now most people know that canned goods have a liner that often contains Bisphenol A or BPA.  We buy BPA free water bottles and BPA free toys for our kids yet somehow on Thanksgiving all of that knowledge of BPAs goes out the window because, goshdarnit, we Americans love our canned cranberry sauce.  If it isn’t still in the shape of the can complete with ri ngs, we don’t want it!  Myself included!  Well, not anymore.  I didn’t order harmful chemicals with my cranberry sauce, thanks.  Make it yourself from fresh or frozen cranberries.  It is easy and delicious… and much safer.  Recipe Remember the two goals I mentioned at the beginning – making delicious food and not making people sick?  They can both happen at the same time by following some simple rules.  When it comes to safe food handling, it is all about awareness.  Be aware of cross contamination, what you touch, and the internal temperature of your food.  Follow these rules and your guests will be thankful that they didn’t learn the word “Campylobacter” for the first time while at your house. ————————-   By Michelle Forman, Senior Media Specialist, APHL. First published on the APHL Public Health LabLog. Reposted with permission.

  • These are great tips that save everyone a lot of heartache. One more thing. If you are frying a turkey, make sure you are verifying the oil temperature with a thermometer, not just gut feel.

  • allin58

    These are great tips! Thanks.
    One note, you may want to read the article just above this one on no fear of BPA.

    • damspam

      Why take a chance on BPA? Lots of folks said DDT was perfectly safe. Same with Thalidomide. Risky behavior had better have a big payoff, and food that lives inside a can isn’t one of them for me.

  • Martin

    i dont agree that meat products should not be rinsed, what guarantess that the person that handled the product before packaging was sanitary concious to the fullest?
    Callers to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline sometimes ask about soaking poultry in salt water. This is a personal preference and serves no purpose for food safety. If you choose to do this, however, preventing cross-contamination when soaking and removing the poultry from the water is essential. Meat or poultry should be kept in the refrigerator while soaking.
    Sometimes consumers wash or soak country ham, bacon, or salt pork because they think it reduces the sodium or salt enough to allow these products to be eaten on a sodium-restricted diet. However, very little salt is removed by washing, rinsing, or soaking a meat product and is not recommended.

    • Em

      Rinsing does not remove pathogenic bacteria, no matter WHO handled the bird. Read the article again, please. Only thorough cooking will kill bacteria. 

    • shelly

      i rinse my turkey to off any feather residue that is left behind and stuff like that…not for bacteria.

  • yogachick

    Well, this article really makes me so happy I am vegan! Having to worry about properly handling the flesh to the point of being obsessive compulsive does not sound like a fun way to cook to me. Plus, some of the descriptions are very gross, like the bacteria-filled juices of the turkey…does that really sound appetizing to people?

    • imcdto

      If people would visit a place like Farm Sanctuary and see how smart and friendly turkeys are they’d likely see that eating one is akin to eating a pet dog or cat. If they learned about the awful treatment the turkeys who do end up in the market are, they’d at least work hard to ensure humane treatment for any animals consumed by them.

      • Jean |

        Ideally, I would be a vegan, but I’m not; so the least I can do is carefully source my meat (including turkey), eggs and dairy products and make sure they are organic and from a place that treats its animals humanely from beginning to end.

    • shelly

      where is am not a vegan, i don’t eat a lot of meat. yes that is gross with the backteria….but i hate to burst your bubble but bacteria is found EVERYWHERE including your yummy fruits and veggies…think if what they grown in (poop) and think of what is showered on them to keep bugs off…pesticides.
      so the same thing goes with bacteria flying everywhere underwater and cleaning meat goes for your fruits and veggies. plus you don’t know who picked your fruit and who packaged your fruit and who handled it before you in the market.
      problem is if you cook your veggies you lose a lot of the healthy stuff (vitamins and stuff) so you can not cook the bacteria out like meat (who will not lose it’s protein cooked).
      just a little fact of the day before running you mouth about how nasty meat is…you have sharp teeth for a reason sweetie.

  • Rebecca Grundstrom Fox

    It’s a wonder I’m still alive…sheesh

  • Vierotchka

    I never buy frozen poultry. I get my chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys directly from local organic farms.

  • Thrlck

    You tell us what not to do on cleaning…so what do you do???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

    • shelly

      um… >.> <.< just cook it. the bacteria will die so long as the bird is cooked at the right temperature.

  • Florida Barb

    My mother follows a 1940s recipe for turkey (Antoinette Pope) that emphasizes in italics to pour boiling water through Tom before stuffing and cooking. So my 90-year-old parents wobble by the sink perfoming this stunt every holiday. “We’ve been doing this for 65 years, so leave us alone!” Is this necessary? I’m not sure if it’s to kill pathogens or just make sure the bird is totally thawed. Or maybe my parents just want to watch me react to them handling the bird with bare hands and a pot full of boiling water …

  • Ernie

    Please. There is a lot of details and possible circumstances involved with such a claim. The fact that probably the vast majority of americans have been rinsing and handling their birds every year (and more), brings more food for thought.

  • susanrudnicki

    Yeah, well you overlook the fact that the modern industrial model of animal growing and slaughter is fraught with all the things we tell people to avoid in order not to become sick themselves—filthy, crowded in closed barns with artificial “ventilation systems”, stressed by the conditions, genetically selected to grow to gargantuan size in a absurdly short time, suffering from organ, joint and bone deformities caused by these situations, dosed with antibiotics and hormones. Then they are thrown into packing crates to go to the slaughterhouse, mostly in trucks open to the winter or summer weather extremes. There, they are stunned in electrified tanks awash with feces. There is little to recommend this commestible of cruelty except that humans view it as their prerogative to take the lives of other beings on this planet to satisfy their discretionary dietary whims.
    I know the vegetables and fruits from my garden are from a much cleaner source than your note implies, and certainly not coated with bacteria I need be concerned about. “Really Nasty…” ? without constant challenge from the exterior world, our immune system does not work properly. It is a marked distinction of the modern human that they are obsessed with the microbes we are designed to exist in concert with.


    If u are so afraid of bacteria and contamination of poultry you shouldn’t eat it. GO VEGAN

  • Hello

    This is very important to know because many people make these mistakes also good thing I don’t put stuffing in my turkey or eat cranberry sauce much