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Thanksgiving Toolkit to Prevent Foodborne Illness: Talking Points

  • The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is the public health agency in USDA responsible for protecting the public’s health by ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry and processed egg products is safe. For more information on FSIS and its work to protect public health, please visit the FSIS website at www.fsis.usda.gov.
     
  • This Thanksgiving [NAME OF ORGANIZATION] has teamed up with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to ensure everyone has a healthy, safe and bacteria-free Thanksgiving.
     
  • Food poisoning is a serious public health threat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that millions of people suffer from foodborne illness each year, resulting in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
     
  • This Thanksgiving, Americans will consume more than 46 million turkeys. With so many people preparing a meal they don’t cook very often, hosts must be especially careful not to serve up food poisoning.

Four Steps to Food Safety

  • FSIS works hard to make sure the food you bring home is safe, but there is always a chance to contract foodborne illnesses, commonly known as food poisoning. This Thanksgiving, USDA is helping consumers learn how to protect themselves with the four steps to food safety – clean, separate, cook and chill.
    • Clean: Clean hands, surfaces and utensils with soap and warm water before cooking. Wash hands for 20 seconds before and after handling raw food, particularly after handling meat, poultry or eggs.
    • Separate: Use separate cutting boards, plates and utensils to avoid cross-contamination between raw meat or poultry and foods that are ready-to-eat.
    • Cook: Confirm foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature by using a food thermometer. Turkey should be cooked to 165°F, as measured in three places — the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh and the innermost part of the wing.
    • Chill: Chill foods promptly if not consuming immediately after cooking. Don’t leave food at room temperature for longer than two hours.

Observational Study Results

  • You can’t see, smell or feel bacteria on meat and poultry, but you can always use a food thermometer to make sure you have destroyed any illness causing bacteria, such as Salmonella or Campylobacter.
     
  • Recent USDA research conducted in a test kitchen found some startling insights about how consumers may be handling the food they will prepare this Thanksgiving:
    • Food Thermometer Use: Many study participants were not using a food thermometer or were using it improperly. Only 12 percent of participants cooked their poultry to the safe internal cooking temperature of 165°F.
      • Your turkey should be cooked to 165°F and the temperature should be checked in three places to make sure none is under cooked – the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh and the innermost part of the wing.
         
    • Handwashing: Collectively, the study team identified more than 1,195 opportunities in which participants should have washed their hands to prevent the transfer of bacteria; but participants did not even attempt to wash their hands at 69 percent (830 out of 1,195) of these points.
      • Of the 31 percent of the time when handwashing was attempted, 97 percent (355 out of 365) of actual handwashing attempts did not contain all of the necessary handwashing steps.
      • The most common mistake was not scrubbing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
      • Many participants also forgot to wet their hands with water before applying soap, which is a crucial step.
      • Drying hands using a clean dish towel or single-use paper towel is also an important handwashing step. Drying your hands properly can help physically remove any microbes that may still be left on your hands after washing. Our study found that some individuals did not dry their hands at all, while others did dry their hands, but dried them on surfaces other than clean towels.
         
    • Proper hand washing after handling raw meat, poultry and eggs can greatly reduce the risk of bacterial cross-contamination. Hand washing should always include five simple steps:
      1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
      2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
      3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
      4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
      5. Dry your hands using a clean towel.
         
    • Kitchen Contamination: The study showed that unsafe food handling behaviors led to bacteria from raw poultry being spread to other locations in the kitchen. Most notably participants transferred bacteria to:
      • 48 percent of the spice containers they used during meal preparation.
      • 11 percent of the refrigerator door handles.
      • 11 percent of water faucet handles.
      • 5 percent of the chef salads prepared.
    • Campylobacter and Salmonella, bacteria found in poultry products, have been shown to survive on surfaces in contact with raw poultry for up to four and 32 hours, respectively. This can pose a health risk if the contaminated surfaces are not adequately cleaned and sanitized.

Preparing Your Turkey

  • Fresh turkey: The “fresh” label means the turkey has never been chilled below 26°F. Fresh turkeys should not be purchased until one or two days before Thanksgiving, unless the manufacturer’s tag has a “Sell By” or “Use-by” date that indicates the turkey will be safe until Thanksgiving. If there is no manufacturer’s tag, then purchase a fresh turkey the Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving at the earliest. Many retailers will allow you to reserve a turkey for pick-up the day before the holiday. If you bring home a fresh turkey before Tuesday, it should be frozen before cooking.
     
  • Frozen turkey: A “frozen” turkey is a turkey that has been cooled to 0°F or lower. Most turkeys sold in the United States are frozen. When purchasing a frozen turkey make sure to leave enough time for it to defrost.
     
  • Thawing turkey: Thawing a turkey on the counter is unsafe. There are three safe ways to thaw a turkey – in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave oven.
    • It will take 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds 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. Cook the turkey immediately after thawing using this method.
    • For instructions on microwave defrosting, refer to the owner’s manual for your microwave. Cook the turkey immediately after defrosting using this method.
       
  • Do not wash your turkey: According to the 2016 Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Survey, 68 percent of consumers wash poultry in the kitchen sink. This is not recommended by the USDA. You should avoid washing a turkey (or any meat for that matter) before cooking. Juices that splash during washing can transfer bacteria onto kitchen surfaces, other foods and utensils. If you must wash your turkey because of brining or other marinating process, be sure to thoroughly sanitize all kitchen surfaces to eliminate the risk of cross-contamination.
     
  • Do not stuff a turkey the night before cooking it. Harmful bacteria can multiply in the stuffing and cause food poisoning when a stuffed bird is refrigerated. The wet and dry ingredients for the stuffing can be prepared separately from each other and refrigerated the night before. When ready to cook the turkey, mix the wet and dry ingredients and put it in the turkey just before placing it in the oven.

Cooking Your Turkey

  • To cook a large turkey, use the timetables for turkey roasting for an unstuffed turkey, which can be found in the Turkey Basics: Safe Cooking section of the FSIS website. Add 10 minutes per pound for turkeys over 24 pounds. We don’t recommend stuffing a turkey over 24 pounds.
    • Make sure you have a pan sturdy enough to hold the weight of the turkey.
       
  • Your turkey is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F as measured by a food thermometer. This is the temperature necessary to kill harmful bacteria. You should check the bird in three areas: (1) the thickest part of the breast, (2) the innermost part of the thigh and (3) the innermost part of the wing.
    • Although pop-up temperature indicators pop up when the food has reached the final temperature, it is recommended that you also check the temperature of the turkey with a conventional food thermometer to ensure safety and doneness. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook poultry to higher temperatures. Manufacturers may also advise consumers to cook to a higher temperature to achieve what they consider the best quality product.
       
  • Cooking two turkeys of approximately the same weight takes no longer than if there were only one bird in the oven. Just make sure there is enough oven space for proper heat circulation.
     
  • It is safe to cook a frozen turkey. The cooking time will take at least 50 percent longer than recommended for a fully thawed turkey.
    • If you cannot separate the giblet package from the turkey before cooking, remove it carefully with tongs or a fork a few hours into the cooking process.

Thanksgiving Leftovers

  • Leftovers (including appetizers, side dishes, and the turkey) should be stored within two hours of cooking. Unfortunately, recent USDA research found that only half of study participants reported that they refrigerate large amounts of leftovers in multiple small containers.
    • Dividing leftovers into smaller portions and refrigerating or freezing them in covered shallow containers helps cool leftovers more quickly than storing them in large containers.
       
  • 76 percent of respondents in our recent study said they would refrigerate leftovers after letting them cool to room temperature first. This is not necessary, and it could actually make your food unsafe. If you leave leftovers out at room temperature, they remain in the ‘danger zone’ (40-140°F) longer than if they go directly into the refrigerator. Food will cool down to a safe temperature faster in the refrigerator.
     
  • Thanksgiving leftovers are safe in the refrigerator for up to four days. This means you have until the Monday after Thanksgiving to eat them, or you can place them in the freezer to enjoy later. If you store leftovers in the freezer, they will be of best quality within 2-6 months.
    • Not enough consumers know that food can become unsafe in the refrigerator after four days. In fact, 30 percent of participants in our recent research indicated they would keep leftovers in the refrigerator for longer than four days before eating or discarding.
    • Frozen food stays safe indefinitely, though the quality may decrease over time.
    • Reheat leftovers thoroughly, to an internal temperature of 165°F.

General Food Safety Tips

  • In recent research, about 34 percent of participants reported that they had at least one individual in the household at increased risk for foodborne illness (i.e., adult aged 60 years or older; pregnant woman; child aged 5 years or younger; or individual diagnosed with diabetes, kidney disease, or another condition that weakens the immune system). When preparing food for those at increased risk of foodborne illness, you must be extra vigilant in the kitchen to keep food safe.
     
  • For more information and tips on preparing the Thanksgiving meal safely, consumers can visit FoodSafety.gov or call the Meat and Poultry Hotline toll-free at 1-888-MPHotline (888-674-6854), open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time on Thanksgiving Day. Families can also access “Ask Karen,” in English (www.askKaren.gov) and Spanish (www.pregunteleaKaren.gov) online database available 24/7 that answers specific questions related to preventing foodborne illnesses.

 

Last Modified Oct 24, 2018