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A Few Basic Rules for a Happy Thanksgiving

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The fourth recommendation on the list, to chill, simply means refrigerate before and after the meal. James Huss, PhD, an associate professor and specialist with the Iowa State University Extension Food Safety Project, tells WebMD, "Keep food out of the danger zone -- that point at which bacteria most likely grows. We tell people keep it hot or keep it cold, where cold is below 40 degrees and hot is above 140 degrees. [And] cook it thoroughly to begin with."

For a beef roast, USDA recommendations suggest the temperature reach 160 degrees, to reduce pinkness in the center, but 145 degrees is safe. For a pork roast, 160 degrees does it.

Even vegetarians aren't safe from to the dangers of food-borne bacteria. "Up until two years ago, we would have said they were home free," Huss says. "But now we've found some bacteria in sprouts that are of some concern. They're finding that the processing water with both soy and sprouts, if it's contaminated, ... will support the bacteria. The product itself should be fine, it's in the processing."

So turkey is obviously not the only cause for concern. Basically, Huss says, any high protein food can support the bacteria. Here's a few more key tips to ensure a safe feast:

  • Never, ever, thaw a turkey at room temperature. That allows the bird to reach the "danger zone," which is an open invitation for bacteria.
  • If you can't thaw the turkey in the refrigerator (24 hours per five pounds), then defrost it in a cold water bath, changing the water every 30 minutes, or use the microwave.
  • Fresh turkeys should be cooked no more than two days after purchase.
  • Food should not be left out longer than two hours after it's cooked.
  • Leftover rules-of-thumb: Turkey and stuffing should be eaten within four days, gravy within two. They should be reheated to 165 degrees, or brought to a rolling boil.
  • Pop-up thermometers are fine, for the turkey. A thermometer should still be used to test the stuffing.

With all these guidelines, how is it that the Pilgrims didn't all fall facedown in their mashed potatoes? "We don't know that they didn't," Berry tells WebMD. "We didn't have the medical technology in place that we do today. We do know that people died of food-borne illnesses. But, people devised ways of keeping the food safe. ... They learned over time."

Huss says the largest concern nowadays is for "young people, old people, and those taking immunosuppressants, otherwise we'd all be sick. Most of us can throw that stuff [bacteria] off fairly well."

Berry agrees, in principal. "The human body is just a phenomenal thing," she says. "People don't realize they are adjusting [over time] to the level of organisms with which they are living. ... It's only when you encounter those levels that you're not used to that you become ill."

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