Thanksgiving food safety: Advice to help keep people safe when eating this holiday season

Nov. 23—The 2022 holiday season is near and a Clemson University food systems and safety agent has some tips to help keep people safe from foodborne illnesses.

Turkey is a popular entree served for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but it also is a source of possible food poisoning, such as salmonella infections.

To help keep people safe, Samantha Houston, Clemson Cooperative Extension Service food systems and safety agent in Lexington, has a few bits of advice.

"There are at least three tasty options for cooking a holiday turkey," Houston said. "These are roasting, smoking and frying. It is important to make sure a turkey is fully cooked before it is eaten to avoid salmonella or other bacteria-related infections."

Bacteria can survive on foods not properly cooked. The color of meat and poultry does not show if it is safely cooked. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods and cook all poultry to at least 165 F.

Cooking a stuffed turkey at home can be riskier than cooking one that is not stuffed. If stuffing is not thoroughly cooked, foodborne illnesses could occur.

Prevent cross-contamination

When cooking poultry, Houston said it is important to prevent cross-contamination.

Always wash hands thoroughly with hot, soapy water before preparing foods and after handling raw poultry. Don't let raw poultry or juices touch ready-to-eat foods either in the refrigerator or during preparation.

Don't put cooked foods on the same plate that previously held raw poultry. Always wash utensils that have touched raw poultry with hot, soapy water before using them for cooked poultry. Wash counters, cutting boards and other surfaces raw poultry have touched.

It is best not to rinse the turkey before cooking because the rinse water could contaminate the sink and, if water is splashed, the counter and other surfaces around the sink could be contaminated as well. Cooking the turkey to a safe temperature — 165 F or hotter — kills bacteria on the surface of the turkey.

Julie Northcutt, professor in the Clemson Department of Food, Nutrition and Packaging Sciences, said health officials see an increase in the incidence of foodborne illness this time of the year.

In most cases, these increases in foodborne illnesses occur because people get distracted.

"Most of us are very busy at the holidays, with friends or relatives visiting us as we cook, but we need to be mindful of where the dangers are when handling raw food, like meat and poultry," Northcutt said. "You wouldn't want your holiday or someone else's to be ruined by a foodborne illness, especially when they are so easy to prevent. No one should ever eat meat without properly cooking, properly holding and correctly storing it."

An easy way to reduce the risk of salmonellosis, or salmonella infection, and ruining a family's holiday is to wash all surfaces touched by poultry with hot soapy water, rinse well and sanitize with a bleach solution made by mixing one scant teaspoon of regular (plain) bleach with 1 quart of water.

Properly store leftovers

Once everyone has eaten, most holiday tables contain leftover food. This food can be stored in a refrigerator for 3-4 days, or in a freezer for 3-4 months.

Houston said that within 2 hours of cooking, leftovers should be put in shallow containers and put in a refrigerator or freezer. Remove stuffing from the turkey and carve the meat off the bones. Divide large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers, no more than 2 inches deep, for quick cooling in the refrigerator.

Avoid placing large pots of leftovers in the refrigerator to cool as it likely will take until the next day for this amount of food to cool.