At least 164 people have been infected during this salmonella outbreak.

Share on Pinterest
A turkey should be cooked until the interior temperature has reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Getty Images

It’s that time of year again when the family gathers around the table for Thanksgiving dinner. If you’re ready to cook one of the roughly 46 million Thanksgiving turkeys that are eaten in the United States each year, you should be aware of some of the health risks that can come from consuming poorly prepared turkeys.

This season, a deadly salmonella outbreak has resulted in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service to order a recall of roughly 147,276 pounds of raw ground turkey products.

These turkey products from Jennie-O Turkey Store Sales, LLC, a food supplier based in Barron, Wisconsin, tested positive for salmonella reading, according to a USDA press release. This was the sole distributor associated with the outbreak.

The outbreak was found in turkey product samples from September 11, 2018, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 164 people in 35 states have been infected so far from the salmonella strain.

They say 63 people have been hospitalized and one person died. Salmonella bacteria affects the intestinal tract and can lead to diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps within 72 hours, according to Mayo Clinic.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Healthline that it’s important we all recognize that turkeys — like all poultry — aren’t reared in sterile environments. They can be contaminated with bacteria that can cause these types of diarrheal illnesses.

“Usually, this leads to diarrhea, aches, pains, and fever that… can take a few nasty days to get better for most people,” Schaffner said. “On occasion, some older people who are frail and some young people who are immune-compromised — this kind of bacteria can leave the intestinal tract, enter the bloodstream, and lead to more serious life-threatening infections. It does happen, so I think a few lessons of caution and good advice would be appropriate to keep in mind.”

He said there are three key recommendations he’d usually make. First, wash your hands and clean any surfaces frequently on which you would typically place your turkey.

Secondly, given that we often buy our turkeys frozen, he said that we should defrost them in the refrigerator and not leave them out to sit in open air.

“If you leave them out, they will get to room temperature, which is an opportunity for bad bacteria to multiply,” he cautioned.

The third point is a no-brainer. Cook your turkey thoroughly to kill any bad bacteria. Schaffner recommends you use a meat thermometer placed in a large portion of your Thanksgiving bird — like the thigh — and make sure it comes to a minimum of 165°F (74°C).

“Then, the turkey will be cooked thoroughly and deliciously, [and] all the bad bacteria will be killed,” he added. “Hand-washing is key. You can contaminate your hands by once again touching the turkey or some other items in the kitchen and contaminate it inadvertently. That’s one common mistake. Another big mistake is getting the raw turkey prepared, cooking the bird well, washing your hands, and then putting [the turkey] back on the unwashed cutting board!”

He said you should remember that “anything the bird touches” should be washed thoroughly, including your hands.

Tamika Sims, PhD, director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation, echoed Schaffner’s advice. Sims said that whenever you prepare to cook a turkey, or any other meat or poultry product, you should make sure you store it properly.

“People should follow instructions on the packaging and use a food thermometer to ensure the internal temperature of the turkey has reached the right number,” she said. “You cannot just look at a turkey to tell if it is done properly.”

Sims added that you should avoid washing your turkey before you cook it. Rinsing it in a sink can spread harmful bacteria around the sink, countertops, and other surfaces.

While the salmonella outbreak has been in the news, what other harmful kinds of bacteria are associated with ill-prepared turkeys? Sims said that beyond Salmonella — which we’ve seen outbreaks of from cucumbers, fruits, pistachios, peanut butter, eggs, and frozen chicken — Listeria monocytogenes is another bacteria tied to recent turkey and other deli meat recalls.

“This bacterium can be commonly found in the environment, meaning it has the ability to grow on farms and can be found in intestines of farm animals,” she said. “As with Salmonella, cooking meat and poultry properly can kill Listeria and help one avoid foodborne illness. Additionally, proper prep that involves avoiding cross-contamination is also key.”

While you might see some sources suggest buying organic turkeys as a safer alternative, both Schaffner and Sims stress this isn’t the case.

“Research shows that organically produced meat or poultry is not less prone to carry bacteria such as Salmonella than their conventionally produced counterparts,” Sims said. “Thus, if a consumer chooses to buy an organic turkey, the safety steps he or she should take are the same if a conventionally raised bird is purchased.”

Schaffner said that while there might be other reasons you choose an organically raised bird beyond health concerns, by their nature, they are no different than standard turkeys.

“They’re still not raised in a sterile environment. Organically raised turkeys are still going to have some degree of contamination,” he said.

His main advice as you get ready for Thanksgiving on Thursday? Just enjoy your “delicious turkey,” but, please, stay safe.

“As with most things, be attentive to the details to make sure that kids in your home who want to poke at the turkey also wash their hands,” Schaffner stressed. “Enjoy your delicious turkey; if you do all of these things, you don’t have to worry.”

A deadly salmonella outbreak has resulted in the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to order a recall of roughly 147,276 pounds of raw ground turkey products from food supplier Jennie-O Turkey Store Sales, LLC, based in Barron, Wisconsin.

In general, anyone preparing a turkey should take steps to wash their hands after the bird is in the oven and carefully disinfect any surfaces the raw turkey was on. Additionally, defrosting a turkey should be done in the refrigerator in order to keep dangerous bacteria from multiplying at room temperature.

Turkeys should be cooked until the interior temperature reaches a minimum of 165°F (74°C).