While food poisoning is more usually associated with summer – warm temperatures, unwashed salad vegetables, underdone hamburgers – any time there is a large gathering with lost of food, there is the risk of food poisoning.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million Americans have food-borne illness annually, leading to approximately 5,000 deaths each year.
Most particularly, there is real danger from strains of the E. coli bacteria, which can contaminate red meat, dairy products and organic vegetables.
E. coli causes virulent food poisoning – diarrhoea, vomiting, fever, sweating, and may go on to cause long lasting health problems for victims – kidney damage, high blood pressure, and abnormal brain patterns.
As well as E.coli infections, holiday turkey meals have been linked to outbreaks of bacterial diseases caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter.
Tips for Safe Thanksgiving Food Preparation
Dr. Ben Chapman, food safety specialist and assistant professor of food science at North Carolina State University, has prepared some simple tips to help keep Thanksgiving food preparation safe.
There are four stages in food handling where the risk of bacterial contamination occurs:
- vegetable preparation
- storing left-overs.
Doing the right thing at every stage – and washing your hands frequently – will eliminate the risks of cross-contaminating different foods, and ensure everyone enjoys the food and the day after Thanksgiving.
Food Safety – Thawing the Bird
Chances are that family size turkey you have is frozen solid. You need to allow enough time for it to thaw completely in the fridge before you cook it.
Cooking a partially thawed turkey increases the risk of food poisoning.
Dr Chapman suggests allowing three to four days for the bird to thaw completely in the fridge. Leaving it to thaw on the counterhtop provides an ideal temperature for bacteria to grow on the surface of the bird.
Thawing in the microwave risks parts of the turkey remaining frozen, while other areas become cooked.
Thawing under water risks cross contamination from the bird onto the kitchen sink, countertop etc.
- Don’t: Thaw on the countertop, in the microwave or under water.
- Do: Thaw completely in the fridge
- Do: Leave the bird in its original wrapping, with a dish under it to catch any drips
Food Safety – Preparing the Turkey
Handling the thawed bird to prepare for cooking is another area of possible risk.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before taking the completely thawed turkey out of the fridge.
- Remove the wrappings, and discard straight into the bin.
- Wipe the turkey over with paper towel, inside and out. Discard this.
- Prepare the bird according to your favourite recipe and put to roast.
- Clean all the utensils and surfaces used and wash your hands again.
- While the turkey is roasting, prepare any vegetables, make any salads etc. When you’ve finished, clean all surfaces and utensils and wash your hands again.
Food Safety – Make Sure your Turkey is Fully Cooked
The biggest risk of food poisoning now comes from undercooking the turkey.
While recipes and tradition give you hints about testing for doneness, such as a good brown color, seeing the juices run clear, or the pop-up button popping, Dr Chapman says these are not accurate enough.
The only way to be sure your bird is cooked sufficiently to be safe to eat is to measure the internal temperature. It must reach 165 degrees F.
This is measured with a tip sensitive digital thermometer which you stick into multiple parts of the bird. Avoid touching bone as this will be hotter and give you a false reading.
- Don’t: estimate that the meat is cooked
- Do: Use a tip sensitive digital thermometer
- Do: Cook until the internal temperature reads 165 degrees F in several places.
Food Safety – Storing Leftovers
There is always too much wonderful tasting food, and left-overs are just as much a part of any holiday meal. Stored and handled correctly, left-overs can be safely enjoyed.
Any left-over turkey must be cooled and refrigerated quickly to prevent bacteria in the air landing and growing on the warm meat.
Dr Chapman advises cooling it quickly to 41 degrees F. You can check the temperature with your digital thermometer.
He suggests slicing up the left-over turkey meat and sealing it in a one-quart freezer bag. Lay the bag flat on a dish in the fridge.
- Don’t: leave the left-over meat on the counter-top to cool.
- Do: Slice the meat up and store in a freezer bag in the fridge to cool quickly to 41 degrees F.
Dr Chapman’s Turkey Safety Hints may be seen on his Food safety Infosheets blog.
You might also be interested in reading Nuts are a Healthy Thanksgiving Snack and Ten Tips for Summer Food Safety