How to avoid food poisoning from your turkey

Thanksgiving meal
CC BY 2.0 Dave / Flickr

Give thanks for not getting sick this holiday.

People are getting sick from a salmonella outbreak linked to turkey this season, and nobody wants to spend their holidays with diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. The number one way not to get sick from turkey is to, wait for it ... not eat turkey. (Hint hint: 9 showstopping vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes.)

But for anyone determined to serve a bird, here's what know to minimize the risk of getting sick, compliments of the CDC.

For salmonella specifically

The most recent outbreak is from raw turkey (see recalled products here) – and is a reminder to always handle raw poultry with care since germs enjoy traveling around the kitchen and settling in where you might least expect them.

Wash your hands
Salmonella infections can spread from one person to another. Wash hands before and after handling raw turkey products.
Cook raw turkey thoroughly to kill harmful germs
All turkey things – from whole birds to breasts, burgers, and sausage, should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F to kill pesky germs. Leftovers should be reheated to 165°F. Use a food thermometer to check.
Don’t spray the germs everywhere
Despite Julia Child's recommendation to wash raw birds, more recent advice suggests not doing that. As per the CDC: "Washing raw poultry before cooking is not recommended. Germs in raw poultry juices can spread to other areas and foods." More important than washing the poultry is to wash hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils with warm, soapy water after they touch raw turkey.

And general safety precautions

Despite salmonella-tainted turkeys gracing the shelves this year, food handling errors and inadequate cooking are the most common problems that lead to poultry-associated foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States, says the CDC. Here are the agency's four food safety tips to always keep in mind.

1. Safely thaw the bird
This one is word for word form the CDC: "Thaw turkeys in the refrigerator in a container, or in a leak-proof plastic bag in a sink of cold water that is changed every 30 minutes. When thawing a turkey in the microwave, follow the microwave oven manufacturer’s instructions. Never thaw your turkey by leaving it out on the counter. A thawing turkey must defrost at a safe temperature. When the turkey is left out at room temperature for more than two hours, its temperature becomes unsafe. Bacteria can grow rapidly in the “danger zone” between 40°F and 140°F."

2. Safely handle your turkey
OK, that sounded weird, but you get the idea. Raw poultry can contaminate anything it touches, as mentioned above. So again, don't wash the bird and spray germs all over your kitchen in the process – and be sure to wash anything that comes into contact with the bird, including your hands, with warm soapy water.

3. Safely prepare stuffing
Yes, they call it stuffing because one is to stuff it into the bird, but the CDC notes that stuffing it into a casserole dish makes it easy to make sure it is thoroughly cooked. If you do put stuffing in the turkey to cook, do it right before cooking and be sure that the stuffing’s center reaches 165°F to ensure that bacteria has been killed.

4. Safely cook your turkey
Use an oven temperature of at least 325°F and make sure the turkey is completely thawed. While cooking times may vary, make sure the turkey has reached an internal temperature of 165°F by inserting a food thermometer into the center of the stuffing and the thickest portions of the breast, thigh, and wing joint. The CDC also says to let the turkey stand 20 minutes before removing all stuffing from the cavity and carving the meat.

Leftovers: Don't forget the Clostridium perfringens!

So you've prepped and cooked the turkey without making anyone sick, yay! Now be sure to do the same with leftovers. Clostridium perfringens grows in cooked foods left at room temperature and is the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning. You'll know it by the vomiting and abdominal cramps within 6 to 24 hours after eating. The CDC notes that these outbreaks happen most often in November and December, and are often linked to holiday foods like turkey and roast beef.

After food (especially poultry or roast beef) has been cooked to a safe temperature, it should be kept at 140°F or warmer OR 40°F or cooler to prevent the growth of C. perfringens. Meat dishes should be served hot, within two hours after cooking – and leftovers should be refrigerated, within two hours of their preparation. Contrary to some suggestions, the CDC says that it is ok to put hot foods directly into the refrigerator, as long as large amounts of food (soups, stews, and big cuts of meats) should be divided into small quantities for refrigeration. Finally, leftovers should be reheated to at least 165°F before serving.

Or, just don't cook an animal! See related stories below for more on that idea.

How to avoid food poisoning from your turkey
Give thanks for not getting sick this holiday.

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