While the COVID-19 pandemic is still top-of-mind during Thanksgiving gatherings, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a reminder that it’s also important to keep family and friends safe from foodborne illness.
“Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times to remind people about food safety,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “I personally know how much effort it takes to prepare a full Thanksgiving meal, and I always ensure I’m following safe food practices like handwashing, using a food thermometer and avoiding cross-contamination.”
By following the tips below, you’ll lessen the chances of having a visit from foodborne illness — an unwelcome visitor — at your table this Thanksgiving.
Clean and Sanitize
Always wash your hands before preparing and handling food. Handwashing helps to prevent the spread of germs. Recent USDA observational research showed that 95 percent of participants failed to properly wash their hands before handing food. Make sure to follow the steps to wash your hands properly.
Clean and sanitize any surfaces that will touch food such as tabletops, kitchen counters, stoves, sinks, etc.
In a recent study, the USDA found 60 percent of kitchen sinks were contaminated with germs after participants washed or rinsed poultry. USDA advises against washing your turkey; however, if you do wash your turkey in the sink, it must be fully cleaned and sanitized afterwards. To clean, rub down surfaces — including the sink, cutting boards and counter tops — with soap and hot water, and then sanitize them with a cleaning solution to remove any residual germs. You can use a homemade solution of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in one gallon of water. Let the surfaces air dry. Be sure to use separate cutting boards—one for meat and another for vegetables and fruit.
Thaw the Turkey Safely
Never thaw a turkey on a counter or in hot water. The USDA recommends thawing a turkey in a refrigerator since this allows for slow and safe thawing. The turkey will need about 24 hours for every four to five pounds of turkey. After thawing, it is safe to store in the refrigerator for one to two days. Turkey can also be thawed in a cold-water bath or microwave; however, it must be cooked immediately after it has thawed using these methods. If using the cold-water method, allow 30 minutes per pound and submerge the turkey in its original wrapping to avoid cross-contamination. It’s safe to cook a turkey from its frozen state; however, it will take at least 50 percent longer to fully thaw. Lastly, never leave a raw turkey out at room temperature for more than two hours.
Make sure your turkey reaches an internal temperature of 165 F. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature in three parts: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the innermost part of the thigh. The USDA recommends using a food thermometer even if the turkey has a pop-up temperature indicator to ensure it has reached 165 F in the three previously stated places. When cooking a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, check the temperature with the food thermometer to ensure it reaches 165 F at the thickest part the breast. All previously cooked side dishes should be reheated to 165 F.
Stuffing your Turkey
The USDA does not recommend stuffing your turkey because it can be a breeding ground for bacteria if not prepared carefully. However, if you plan to stuff your turkey, keep the following in mind:
*The wet and dry ingredients for the stuffing should be prepared separately from each other and refrigerated until ready to use.
*Stuff the turkey loosely — about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound.
*Immediately place the stuffed, raw turkey in an oven set no lower than 325 F.
*A stuffed turkey will take longer to cook. Once it has finished cooking, place a food thermometer in the center of the stuffing to ensure it has reached a safe internal temperature of 165 F.
*Let the cooked turkey stand 20 minutes before removing the stuffing.
For more information on turkey stuffing, visit Turkey Basics: Stuffing.
The Two-Hour Rule
All perishable foods must be refrigerated within two hours of being cooked, or one hour if the temperature is 90 F or above. After two hours, perishable food will enter the “Danger Zone” (between 40 F and 140 F), which is where bacteria can multiply quickly and cause the food to become unsafe. Discard all foods that have been left out for more than two hours.
After the meal (but within the two-hour rule), separate larger quantities of leftovers in small shallow containers and place them in the refrigerator. Thanksgiving leftovers are safely stored in a refrigerator for up to four days. In the freezer, leftovers can be safely frozen indefinitely but will keep best quality for two to six months. Reheat leftovers to an internal temperature of 165 F. Check the internal temperature of the food in several places with a food thermometer after allowing a resting time.
For Thanksgiving food safety questions, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), email MPHotline@usda.gov or chat live at ask.usda.gov from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.
Do you have any last-minute turkey day questions? The Meat and Poultry Hotline will be open on Thanksgiving Day from 8 a.m. -2 p.m. EST.
Check out the USDA FoodKeeper App, which helps to reduce food waste by providing food and beverage storage information. For more information about FoodKeeper, visit the FoodKeeper website.