Don't Let your Thanksgiving Turkey Bite with a Foodborne Illness

Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - 5:26am

Food Safety Tips for a Healthy Holiday

With the Thanksgiving Holiday fast approaching later in the week, it is a good time for a reminder about how to make sure that your turkey doesn't become a source for anything worse than a full stomach. Because turkeys are among the largest food items that we have to prepare, there are a number of easily overlooked steps that you should take to help assure that you and your guests do not end the holiday meal with major gastro-intestinal consequences.

There are three stages of dealing with a big turkey that can present the possibility of creating illness rather than creating the satisfaction that comes after eating a well prepared meal.

They are:
• Thawing
• Cooking
• Storing

If you buy your bird less than two days before your meal, you will be forced to consider fast and completely unsafe thawing options, such as leaving the turkey in the kitchen sink or kitchen counter for 12 hours or more. That option is a sure path to post meal illness. Safe thawing should always be done with the turkey in the refrigerator allowing about 24 hours for every five pounds of bird. Also be sure to place the thawing turkey on a tray or pan to catch any leaking juices. Those raw juices are rich in bacteria that will contaminate other food it touches. This possibility raises another important safety issue in dealing with the raw bird - which is cross contamination. Any time you touch the raw turkey, or any surface or kitchen utensil that comes into contact with it, you will pick up and transfer harmful bacteria to someplace where it can do harm. This means that you need to wash your hands carefully after touching the turkey and before you touch anything else. Also be very careful about cleaning surfaces, cutting boards, and utensils after contact, and before you let them contact something else.

Follow the cooking instructions as if your health and well-being depended on them. They do. There are specific cooking times determined by the weight of the bird and specific temperature guidelines. (See the link below for specifics.) Always use a meat thermometer while cooking. The turkey is safe to eat when the inner temperature reaches 165° F. Many cooks and food safety experts recommend that you prepare the stuffing separate from the bird. If you do stuff the bird, you also need to be sure that the stuffing reaches the same 165° F temperature to make sure that it is also safe to eat.

How many times have you been at a Thanksgiving dinner where the bird sits on the table for several hours after the meal? This is less a tradition than a bad and dangerous habit. The germ theory does not stop functioning at a holiday feast. A large bird (and other perishable items) left out for more than two hours will begin to become an incubator for harmful bacteria, so when folks are done with dessert, put the bird along with all the perishable leftovers in the refrigerator. Refrigerated turkey and stuffing should be used within three to four days.

Follow this advice, and you will be able to avoid visits from such uninvited guests as Madam Salmonella, Auntie Listeria, and the dreaded Mr. E- coli. Those folks can really ruin a party.

For more information about safe holiday cooking see

For specific guidelines about cooking times for turkey see


Public Health - Madison & Dane County


  • Jeff Golden(608) 243-0302