As the nation prepares for its most celebrated food holiday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is urging consumers to prioritize food safety during Thanksgiving preparations. The focus is on avoiding practices that could expose families to harmful bacteria in their holiday feast.

“Unsafe handling and undercooking your turkey can cause foodborne illness,” emphasized USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Emilio Esteban. “To ensure your Thanksgiving meal is wholesome and memorable without the illness, follow the four steps to food safety: clean, separate, cook and chill, and avoid risky food handling habits that go against USDA guidelines.”

Here are seven dangerous habits the USDA is urging consumers to drop:

1. Not washing hands or kitchen surfaces thoroughly:

  • Handwashing for at least 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after handling food is crucial.
  • Surfaces that come into contact with raw turkey and its juices should be cleaned and sanitized to prevent the spread of germs.
  • A recent USDA study revealed a disparity between self-reported and observed handwashing practices, emphasizing the need for increased attention to this fundamental safety step.

2. Using the same cutting boards and utensils for raw and ready-to-eat foods:

  • Cross-contamination is a significant concern. Separate cutting boards for raw meat and ready-to-eat foods can prevent the spread of harmful bacteria.

3. Defrosting turkey on the kitchen counter:

  • Safe thawing methods include refrigerator thawing and cold water thawing. Thawing on the counter can expose the outer layers of the turkey to the “Danger Zone” for bacteria growth.
  • It takes 24 hours for every four to five pounds of weight for a turkey to thaw in the refrigerator (a 15-pound turkey will take three days to thaw in your refrigerator). A completely thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for one or two days before cooking.
  • To thaw in cold water, submerge the bird in its original wrapper in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.

4. Cooking turkey overnight at a low temperature:

  • Cooking turkey below 325 F is unsafe as it prolongs the time the meat spends in the “Danger Zone.” Ensure all parts of the turkey reach a safe internal temperature of 165 F.

5. Relying only on a pop-up temperature indicator:

  • While pop-up timers are useful, it’s recommended to use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature at multiple spots in the turkey.
Make sure turkey reaches a safe internal temperature of 165°F. Use a food thermometer to check in three places, avoiding bone: (1) thickest part of the breast, (2) where body and thigh join, aiming toward thigh, and (3) where body and wing join, aiming toward wing.

6. Stuffing turkey the night before:

  • If stuffing is part of the plan, follow USDA guidelines to minimize bacteria growth, including mixing wet and dry ingredients just before filling the turkey cavity.

7. Keeping leftovers for more than a week:

  • Proper storage is key. Leftovers should be stored in small, shallow containers and consumed within four days. In the freezer, they are safe indefinitely but best quality within two to six months.

Adopting these safe practices can ensure a holiday filled with joy and gratitude, free from the risks of foodborne illness. 

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