Whether you’re the go-to grandma who always hosts Thanksgiving dinner or the first-time novice, preparing a holiday meal is an undertaking that requires planning, skill, patience, and most importantly, attention to food safety. The Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) reminds Iowans to take special care when preparing foods for Thanksgiving. “When large gatherings like holiday-related meals happen, we typically hear about people getting ill with diarrhea and vomiting from foodborne illnesses,” said IDPH Medical Director, Dr. Patricia Quinlisk. “Most of these illnesses are caused by foods that are improperly cooked or stored.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne illness affects 48 million Americans, causes 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually. Anyone, regardless of race, age, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, is at risk. People at the highest risk of becoming very sick from a foodborne illness are the elderly, children, individuals with a weakened immune system, and pregnant women. Fortunately, most people recover from foodborne illnesses without complications, but symptoms can last anywhere from hours to weeks.
When preparing a turkey, be aware of four main safety issues: thawing, preparing, stuffing and cooking to adequate temperature.
- Thawing: There are three safe ways to thaw a turkey - in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in a microwave oven.
- When thawing in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours of thawing time for every five pounds of turkey. Place the turkey in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for one or two days before cooking.
- When using a microwave, check the manufacturer’s instructions for the number of minutes per pound and the appropriate power level to use for thawing. Plan to cook the turkey immediately after thawing since some areas of the bird may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving.
- When thawing in cold water, allow 30 minutes per pound of turkey and change the water every 30 minutes. Be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water, resulting in a watery product. A turkey thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately.
- Preparing: After working with raw poultry, always wash your hands, utensils, and work surfaces before they touch other foods.
- Stuffing: For optimal safety, cook the stuffing outside the turkey in a casserole dish; however, if you place stuffing inside the turkey, do so just before cooking and use a food thermometer. Make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F.
- Cooking: Set the oven temperature no lower than 325°F and be sure the turkey is completely thawed. Place turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan 2 to 2-1/2 inches deep. Check the internal temperature at the center of the stuffing and meaty portion of the breast, thigh, and wing joint using a food thermometer. Cooking times will vary. The food thermometer must reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Let the turkey stand 20 minutes before removing all stuffing from the cavity and carving the meat.
Remember to refrigerate food promptly after the meal. Discard any food left out more than two hours. Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water when preparing food and serving. Always wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before going on to the next. Lastly, you should not prepare or touch food meant for others if you are ill.
If you suspect food poisoning after consuming an item from a restaurant, grocery store, convenience store, market or public gathering, call IDPH’s IowaSic hotline at 1-844-469-2742. For additional information on safe holiday turkey preparation, visit www.cdc.gov/features/turkeytime/.