A Few Basic Rules for a Happy Thanksgiving

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 24, 1999 (Atlanta) -- It's time to talk turkey. There are myriad recipes out there on how to prepare the Thanksgiving staple, but few of them mention a key ingredient: safety. But unless some simple precautions are followed, turkey -- and many other items on the menu -- can knock the stuffing out of you.

The problem is bacteria. The have such operatic-sounding names, like Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, and Salmonella enterica. But the sounds they'll have coming out of you won't be heard in any concert hall, and even Wagner couldn't dream them up.

Not to put a damper on the holidays, but food safety is a concern for many officials, especially during the holidays. Bessie Berry, the manager of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) meat and poultry hotline, tells WebMD, "The reason that we're very concerned around the holidays is because of the enormity of the meal itself. Traditions, and the expectations that are there, are not there throughout the year. People are preparing birds for the first time because it's their time to cook, and that sort of thing, and they aren't aware of some of the pitfalls in handling and preparing large meals like this, and particularly a large turkey."

According to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service recommendations, a cautious cook should follow four guidelines: clean, separate, cook, and chill. "All of the surfaces should be kept as clean as possible throughout the process," Berry says.

Separate means don't cross-contaminate. "The real problem with the side dishes, especially when you're preparing something as large as this [Thanksgiving meal], is the cross-contamination from the juices of the birds into those other foods that may or may not have been already cooked," Berry tells WebMD.

Berry also says, "Temperature controls are paramount." Everything must be cooked to the proper temperature. The turkey must reach at least 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the question, to stuff or not to stuff, comes into the mix. "The safest way to [cook stuffing] is outside the bird. But tradition is hard to beat. So, if people choose to do that, they should mix the stuffing ingredients just prior to stuffing the cavity, then stuff the cavity loosely. Then use a thermometer. For the bird, 185 degrees [should be reached], and the oven should be no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and the stuffing must reach at least 165 degrees after the bird has reached 185," Berry says.

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To register properly, the thermometer should be inserted into the innermost part of the bird's thigh, and the center of the stuffing. If the bird reaches the proper temperature before the stuffing, then the bird must still be cooked until the stuffing is done. For this reason, Berry says a turkey can be left more "succulent" if the stuffing is cooked on the outside. In the absence of a meat thermometer, the stuffing should always be prepared outside the bird, according to USDA recommendations, and the bird's juices should run clear when pierced with a fork.

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.

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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."

She says, "It isn't difficult to prepare a safe meal, but I want people to realize why it's important to do so."

That importance, according to Huss, generally means, "if you ever get it [food poisoning], you don't want it again."

Huss tells WebMD the bottom line is that "some people throw everything away because they're afraid they're going to get sick the next day. Well, cook the turkey, serve the turkey, enjoy the turkey, cut it up, put it in your refrigerator, use it the next day and the next."

Bon appetit!

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