The Niagara County Department of Health is providing tips and resources to make this Thanksgiving safe and bacteria-free.
Poultry, including turkey, contains harmful pathogens such as Salmonella and Campylobacter that can lead to serious foodborne illness. Follow these tips to ensure your family has a safe and healthy feast.
Controlling the temperature will reduce the production of unsafe toxins that can make the meat unsafe, even after cooking. Never thaw a turkey at room temperature.
It is very important to thaw a frozen turkey completely by one of these two methods:
— The safest way is on a plate in the refrigerator (around 40 degrees), which can take 5 hours per pound. Thawing usually takes more than three days.
— If the first method is not an option, the turkey may be placed in a water bath. Use a large pot in the kitchen sink and continuously run cold water over the bird — which can take 30 minutes per pound, often 10 hours. The turkey needs to be totally submerged in the water and the sink drain cannot be plugged (so excess water, as it runs over the side of the pot, can go down the drain). A bird thawed in a water bath needs to be cooked as soon as possible once thawed, as it is vulnerable to bacterial growth.
Wash your hands, not the turkey
Washing your hands before cooking is the simplest way to stop the spread of bacteria. The USDA advises not to wash your turkey, as it is the easiest way to spread bacteria all over your kitchen. The exception to this rule is brining. When rinsing brine off a turkey, be sure to remove all other food or objects from the sink, layer the area with paper towels and allow a slow stream of water to avoid splashing. All surfaces (including the preparer’s hands) should be cleaned with sanitizing solution comprised of 1⁄2-teaspoon bleach in one-gallon water.
Don't stuff the turkey
Even if the turkey is cooked to the correct internal temperature, the stuffing inside may not have reached a temperature high enough to kill the bacteria. If you still choose to stuff the turkey, stuff the bird just before placing in a pre-heated oven. All of the stuffing needs to be removed from the bird immediately after removing from the oven. Any stuffing that will not be served must be put into the refrigerator.
Cook the turkey to 165°F
To avoid foodborne illness, make sure the turkey is cooked to 165°F as measured by a food thermometer. A dial faced, probe type thermometer that has a range from 0°F to 220°F with delineation for every 2 degrees is recommended. The bird’s temperature should be taken in three areas — the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the innermost part of the thigh. Make sure all three locations are at 165°F. If they're not, then continue cooking the bird until all three areas reach 165°F.
Follow the 2-hour rule for leftovers
Any meat, stuffing or other perishable foods should not be left on the table or countertops for longer than two hours. After two hours, bacteria can rapidly multiply, and if eaten, you could get sick. The food should not be deeper than 4 inches and placed in a container left uncovered until the food is cold. Then it may be stored in the refrigerator. Leftovers should stay safe in the refrigerator for four days and need to be reheated to a minimum of 165°F prior to consuming.
For more information, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 and talk to a food safety expert. The Meat and Poultry Hotline is available on Thanksgiving Day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET. More information about how to safely select, thaw and prepare a turkey may be found at https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/types/turkey/.
Scott Ecker is the associate supervisory public health sanitarian for the Niagara County health department.