As millions of Americans get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, food-safety experts want to remind home cooks about five simple rules to avoid food-related illness.
A recent national telephone survey by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service found that 53 percent of consumers think it is “not very common” to get food poisoning because of the way food is prepared in the home.
Federal officials say that isn’t true, and promoting safe food handling in the home is one way they are working to reduce the rates of food poisoning nationally.
So to make sure you Thanksgiving doesn’t involve illness, the Food Safety and Inspection Service offers the following advice:
1. Don’t wash the turkey.
According to the most recent Food Safety Survey, conducted by the Food and Drug Administration, 68 percent of the public washes the whole turkey before cooking it. The USDA does not recommend washing raw meat and poultry before cooking. Washing raw meat and poultry can cause bacteria to spread up to 3 feet away. Cooking (baking, broiling, boiling, frying or grilling) meat and poultry to the right temperature kills any bacteria that may be present, so washing meat and poultry is not necessary.
2. Use the refrigerator, the cold-water method or the microwave to defrost a frozen turkey.
There are three safe ways to defrost a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave oven. Thawing food in the refrigerator is the safest method because the turkey will defrost at a consistent, safe temperature. It will take 24 hours for every 5 pounds of weight for a turkey to thaw in the refrigerator. To thaw in cold water, submerge the bird in its original wrapper in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. For instructions on microwave defrosting, refer to your microwave’s owner’s manual.
3. Use a meat thermometer.
A whole turkey should be checked in three locations: the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. Your thermometer should register 165 degrees in all three of these places. The juices rarely run clear at this temperature, and when they do the bird is often overcooked.
4. Don’t store food outside, even if it’s cold.
Animals, both wild and domesticated, can get into food stored outside, consuming it or contaminating it. And just like your car gets warm in the summer, a plastic food storage container in the sun can heat up and climb into the danger zone (above 40 degrees). The best way to keep that extra Thanksgiving food at a safe temperature (below 40 degrees) is in a cooler with ice.
5. Leftovers are good in the refrigerator for up to four days.
Cut the turkey off the bone and refrigerate it as soon as you can, within two hours of the turkey coming out of the oven. Leftovers will last for four days in the refrigerator, so if you know you won’t use them right away, pack them into freezer bags or airtight containers and freeze. For best quality, use your leftover turkey within four months. After that, the leftovers will still be safe, but can dry out or lose flavor.
If you have questions about your Thanksgiving dinner, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert.