USDA offers up last-minute Thanksgiving food safety advice

By Aidan Fortune contact

- Last updated on GMT

The USDA has published advice on the proper preparation of Thanksgiving turkeys
The USDA has published advice on the proper preparation of Thanksgiving turkeys
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has published a guide to food safety ahead of Thanksgiving (24 November). 

It warned that, given it is probably the largest meal that people will cook all year, they should be mindful of foodborne illnesses. Last November, its hotline fielded more than 3,000 consumer calls about Thanksgiving food preparation.

“Unsafe handling and undercooking of food can lead to serious foodborne illness,” ​said Al Almanza, deputy under secretary for food safety at the USDA. “Turkeys may contain salmonella and campylobacter, harmful pathogens that are only destroyed by properly preparing and cooking the turkey. Similarly, leaving leftovers out for too long, or not taking care to properly clean cooking and serving surfaces, can lead to other types of illness. We want to be sure that all consumers know the steps they can take and resources that are available to them to help prepare a safe and enjoyable holiday meal.”

To help consumers avoid foodborne illnesses, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) offers five tips for a food safe Thanksgiving:

Tip 1: Don’t wash that turkey
According to the most recent Food Safety Survey, conducted by the Food and Drug Administration, 68% of the public washes the whole turkey before cooking it. Washing raw meat and poultry can cause bacteria to spread up to three feet away. Cooking meat and poultry to the right temperature kills any bacteria that may be present, so washing meat and poultry is not necessary.

Tip 2: Use the refrigerator, the cold-water method or the microwave to defrost a frozen turkey
There are three safe ways to defrost a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave oven. Thawing food in the refrigerator is the safest method because the turkey will defrost at a consistent, safe temperature. It will take 24 hours for every 5lb of weight for a turkey to thaw in the refrigerator. To thaw in cold water, submerge the bird in its original wrapper in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. For instructions on microwave defrosting, refer to owner’s manual. Cold water and microwave thawing can also be used if your bird did not entirely defrost in the refrigerator.

Tip 3: Use a meat thermometer
The only way to determine if a turkey (or any meat, poultry or seafood) is cooked is to check its internal temperature with a food thermometer. A whole turkey should be checked in three locations: the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. Your thermometer should register 165°F in all three of these places. The juices rarely run clear at this temperature and, when they do, the bird is often overcooked. Using the food thermometer is the best way to ensure your turkey is cooked, but not overdone.

Tip 4: Don’t store food outside, even if it’s cold
Storing food outside is not safe for two reasons. Firstly, animals, both wild and domesticated, can get into food stored outside, consuming it or contaminating it. Secondly, temperature variation means that, just like your car gets warm in the summer, a plastic food storage container in the sun can heat up and climb into the danger zone (above 40°F). The best way to keep extra Thanksgiving food at a safe temperature (below 40°F) is in a cooler with ice.

Tip 5: Leftovers are good in the refrigerator for up to four days
Cut the turkey off the bone and refrigerate it as soon as you can, within two hours of the turkey coming out of the oven. Leftovers will last for four days in the refrigerator, so if you know you won’t use them right away, pack them into freezer bags or airtight containers and freeze. For best quality, use your leftover turkey within four months. After that, the leftovers will still be safe, but can dry out or lose flavour.

For consumers that have any other pressing Thanksgiving food preparation questions, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline (1-888-674-6854​) is available. It’s open from 8am to 2pm ET on Thanksgiving.

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