Trying to find space in the oven for the bird and all the side dishes isn’t the most worrisome aspect of holiday cooking. Not when the CDC estimates 1.2 million cases of salmonella infection occur each year in the United States.
And, salmonella isn’t the only bacteria in our meat and poultry
The other common culprits causing food-borne illnesses are:
- Clostridium perfringens
Food handling and cooking it to the proper internal temperature are two of the most important things to think about while preparing your holiday feasts.
Use care when thawing the turkey
The USDA recommends thawing the turkey in the refrigerator. They caution that as soon as the bird begins to thaw, “any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again” in warmer temperatures.
Place the packaged turkey in a bag or other container to prevent the juices from landing on other foods. Ensure that the refrigerator’s temperature remains below 40 degrees Fahrenheit at all times.
Although the USDA says that a turkey needs 24 hours for each 5 pounds in weight, they offer up this handy guideline:
- 4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days
- 12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
- 16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
- 20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days
Never leave frozen turkey on the kitchen counter to thaw
Start with a clean work surface
Avoid transferring bacteria that may be on counter tops and cutting boards to the food you’re preparing by washing all the work surfaces with hot soapy water. Rinse well and use a clean towel to wipe the surfaces dry.
Use a dedicated cutting board for meat and poultry and another for produce
Next, turn your attention to all of the tools and equipment you’ll be using in the meal’s preparation.
Knives, bowls, serving pieces and storage containers should get the same treatment as the work surfaces – wash them all in hot, soapy water or in the dishwasher.
Then, wash your hands well and wash them frequently, especially after handling raw meat or poultry.
The best way to clean produce with firm skin, such as cucumbers, carrots and apples is with a clean vegetable scrubber, under running water.
Peas, lettuce and fruits with soft skins can be tossed in a colander and rinsed under running water.
Bacteria from the skin of potatoes or other vegetables you’ll be peeling can be transferred to the vegetable while peeling, so wash those too
No, it may not be done when the juices run clear
Turkeys need to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F and “the juices rarely run clean at this temperature,” claims the experts at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “When they do,” they continue, “the bird is often overcooked.”
The only way to determine if a turkey is cooked to a safe temperature is with a food thermometer. HHS recommends testing in three locations, the “innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast.”
Ensure that in each location, the thermometer reads at least 165 degrees F
Take care with leftovers
The CDC says that the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning can be chalked up to Clostridium perfringens. “This is bacteria that “grows in cooked foods left at room temperature.” And, as expected, hospitals and doctors see most sufferers in November and December.
Never leave leftovers at room temperature longer than two hours
- Never use unwashed containers or plates that held raw turkey to hold cooked food.
- The same holds true for utensils – use clean ones for cooked food.
- Although the USDA recommends thawing the turkey in the refrigerator, it can also be thawed in cold water or in the microwave. Follow the instructions on the USDA’s website.
- Avoid rinsing the turkey before stuffing. “The surface of the turkey may have bacteria on it,” Diane Van, Manager of USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline told ABC News, and washing the turkey may spread the organisms around the kitchen.
For questions and concerns regarding food safety, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-674-6854 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET. Yes, they’ll be manning the phones even on the holidays, from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. ET.