Thanksgiving, more so than any other American holiday, is centered around food. For many, this means time with family and delicious food. Unfortunately for many others, it means food poisoning. According to Robert Williams, a professor of food safety in Virginia Tech’s Department of Food Science and Technology, following a few basic food safety tips when preparing Thanksgiving dinner can help keep you safe from foodborne illness this holiday season.
“Thawing and cooking a turkey safely requires planning and careful food safety practices,” Williams said. “Food preparers should start by cleaning and sanitizing kitchen surfaces. It’s recommended that packaged frozen turkeys be thawed in the refrigerator — allow 24 hours for every four to five pounds of turkey — or submerged in cold tap water with water changes every 30 minutes. When using the cold-water method, it will take approximately 30 minutes for every pound of turkey. So, an 18 pound turkey should take about 9 hours to thaw.”
Cross contamination during preparation is one of the easiest ways to taint a dish, said Williams. Cooks must be careful to wash their hands and be mindful of what they allow to come into contact with raw meat.
“Do not rinse your turkey!” Williams said. “Rinsing results in splatters that may spread harmful bacteria over your counters and throughout your kitchen.”
Food safety procedure also shouldn’t end once dinner is served. Leftovers are an integral part of the Thanksgiving experience, and their improper storage is one of the leading causes of foodborne illness during the holidays. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), outbreaks of Clostridium perfringens — a bacteria that grows on cooked food left at room temperature — spike in November and December and are often linked to foods served during the holidays, such as turkey and roast beef.
“Leftovers should be refrigerated at a temperature of 40 degrees or colder within two hours of the time the meal began,” Williams said. “Large pieces of meat should be broken down and refrigerated in shallow pans to allow them to cool more quickly.”
Cases of foodborne illness may be common, especially during the holidays, but all it takes is a few basic food safety practices to give your family one more thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.
“Food preparers should start by clearing expired or spoiled foods from their refrigerators to make room for thawing the turkey and refrigerating leftovers. Turkey breasts can be thawed in the microwave and then cooked immediately.”
“A food thermometer is your best friend when cooking a turkey. Using a thermometer allows you to cook the turkey to a safe temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit — as measured in the thigh — without overcooking it.”
Williams is an Associate Professor in the Food Science and Technology Department at Virginia Tech, where he has spent over 17 years researching food safety, food microbiology, and pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms in foods.