Monday, November 19, 2012

Let’s Talk Turkey: Tips to Eat Your Bird Safely This Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is often times celebrated by overindulging in a delicious turkey dinner spread and counting blessings for the past year.  Before your bird hits the table there are a number of steps that need to be taken to ensure a succulent turkey and one free of disease causing organisms.

Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and assistant professor of food science at North Carolina, said that fixings for the big meal are complicated.  But you if follow some simple advice, you can help yourself to ensure that your meal goes off without a hitch.

1.       Thaw your turkey.

·         If you are going to be frying your turkey, make sure that you thaw the bird.  Putting a frozen bird into a hot fryer can lead to a big mess, and a lot of danger, an event that can be due to the turkey’s temperature and the water content. "It has to do with the temperature change. You're putting something really cold into something really hot and that affects what the oil is going to do," Chapman said, adding that this "exploding turkey" phenomenon is outside his expertise.

·         "I had guessed that the water in the turkey, or whatever, boils very fast causing the surface to explode with bubbles, some of which could spray oil on the burner," John Coupland, associate professor of food science at Penn State, said in an e-mail to LiveScience. "So wet rather than cold is the key variable."

·         Thinking about where you might be able to defrost your bird for the big day?  Chapman recommends placing the turkey in the refrigerator, microwave, or under cool water.  Caution: all methods come with their own risks.  When using the fridge, you need to make sure that the turkey thaws all the way through, which means making sure the center doesn’t remain frozen. 

·         The United States Department of Agriculture guidelines for thawing your turkey in the fridge:

o   4 to 12 pounds: 1-3 days

o   12 to 16 pounds: 3-4 days

o   16 to 20 pounds: 4-5 days

o   20 to 24 pounds: 5-6 days

2.       Don’t wash the turkey!

·         "As soon as you have the pressure of the water hitting the turkey it can spray anything on the outside of that turkey around the kitchen," Chapman told LiveScience.

·         Researchers in the UK recently discovered that forceful water hitting the turkey has the potential to spray pathogens up to three feet.

·         Instead, Chapman recommends wiping the outside of the turkey with a damp rag and immediately throwing out the rag or putting it in the washing machine.  "Treat that damp rag like a raw chicken," he said, adding that it likely contains the pathogens you're trying to avoid.

3.       Cook your bird!

·         "The most important thing is cooking that turkey to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius), and there's only one way to know whether you've cooked it safely and that is to use a thermometer." Campylobacter and Salmonella can’t grow until the temperature reaches 45 degrees Fahrenheit and are killed when the temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

·         Some think that the color of the juice can be an indicator that the meat is done, but this is not the case.  The juice color from the meat does change as the bird cooks but that does not mean that the bird is safe to eat.

·         To check if you turkey is done: place a tip-sensitive digital thermometer into 8-10 spots on the turkey.  When the thermometer reads at least 165 degrees all around, then it is time to come out. Chapman advises to target thick areas on the turkey, away from the cavity or bone because bone conducts heat better and can give a false reading.

4.       Hurry; put the turkey in the fridge!

·         As soon as you are done with the meal, Chapman advises putting the turkey in the fridge.  If any pathogens are left on the turkey they can begin to grow at 135 degrees Fahrenheit.  Even if you thoroughly cooked the bird in the oven, new pathogens could have taken up residence.  For example, Staphylococcus aureus lives on most of us around our eyes and noses. However, it doesn't release its toxins until it has a food source, such as the warm turkey meat. Rubbing your nose or an eye while handling the turkey could give the staph a free ride onto the food. The cold temperatures in your fridge will slow down growth, keeping the pathogen at safe levels.

·         Chapman also suggests dividing your meat into smaller portions to increase the surface area exposed to the cold temperatures and slow down pathogen growth.

5.       Have left overs? Repeat the above steps.

·         Chapman says that repeating the same steps for a raw turkey as a cooked turkey are important to keep your food safe.  Pull out the thermometer again to check the temperature of the meat.  Even if you warm your bird up in the microwave, still check that the temperature is at 165 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce the chance for disease.

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