How Safe is Your Thanksgiving Meal?
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How Safe is Your Thanksgiving Meal?


One of the most important things you can do to stay healthy this Thanksgiving involves how you eat rather than what you eat. Believe it or not, over 200,000 Americans get sick every day from food borne illness (food poisoning) from improper food handling, cooking, and storing. Thanksgiving is actually one of the riskiest days of the year for food poisoning, and the effects can be quite serious. Food poisoning is most risky for pregnant women, small children, older adults, people with chronic diseases (such as heart disease or diabetes), those who have recently had surgery or are recovering from an injury, and anyone with a weak immune system. In fact, this preventable illness leads to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year. The good news is, you can keep yourself and your family safe by following some basic food safety guidelines:

-If you’re serving turkey tomorrow and you purchased a frozen one, plan for 30 minutes per pound to defrost it, and always defrost in the refrigerator – never on the countertop or in the sink. The bacteria in raw turkey grows very rapidly between the temperatures of 40 and 140 Fahrenheit (F), so thawing at room temperature is a guaranteed risk. According to a recent survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association, nearly one in three Americans (31 percent) typically thaws frozen meat on the kitchen counter, under hot water in the kitchen sink, or in the oven – all big food safety no-nos.

-Carefully wash anything at all that has come into contact with the raw turkey or juices, including your hands, utensils, counter tops, dish rags, sponges, plates and any other items. Unfortunately, you can’t see, smell or taste the bacteria, so it can continually re-contaminate your kitchen and hands if you aren’t careful. Keep a “better safe than sorry” philosophy - wash any potentially contaminated item thoroughly with hot soapy water, or place items in the dishwasher or hot cycle of the washing machine right away.

-Always cook the dressing or “stuffing” separately from the turkey – cooking it inside increases the risk of consuming live bacteria. But, after carefully cooking the dressing and the turkey separately, it’s safe to place the dressing into the turkey before serving if you really want to.

-Be sure to cook your turkey thoroughly. The estimated time needed to roast a turkey is: 15 to 18 minutes per pound (unstuffed). For example, a 20-pound turkey will take at least 5 hours to roast.

-Cook your turkey to an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit (F) to kill all of the bacteria. The only way to really know if a turkey is at the right temperature is to use a meat thermometer (insert the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the muscle away from the bone). According to the ADA survey, nearly three out of four Americans say they don’t know the proper temperature to which a whole turkey should be cooked - and more than half (52 percent) don’t consistently use a meat thermometer to ensure doneness. Instead, 40 percent wait for meat to "look done" or for "the juices to run clear," while a small percentage (5 percent) use unconventional methods such as wiggling turkey legs, poking meat with a fork or even conducting a taste-test (none of these are accurate). The ONLY way to know if your turkey is safe to eat is to use a meat thermometer.

-Always wash your hands before and after handling any food on Thanksgiving day. And of course, be especially careful about hand washing after using the bathroom, changing diapers, touching your nose, face or hair, or handling pets.

-Throughout the day, be sure to wash all kitchen surfaces often, including cutting boards, utensils and counter tops. Use hot soapy water and don’t re-use dish towels – you could just be spreading around bacteria that you can’t see.

For more information about food safety on Thanksgiving and all year round, visit the ADA’s food safety web site www.homefoodsafety.org. And check back tomorrow for more Thanksgiving meal food safety tips (about the proper handling, storing, and re-heating of leftovers).

photo courtesy of freeimages.co.uk
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About the Author


MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N

Tara Gidus is a nationally recognized expert and spokesperson on nutrition and fitness.

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