How Safe Is Your Thanksgiving Turkey?

November 10, 2008

More than 270 million turkeys, weighing almost 8 billion pounds, will be raised in America this year, with most of them ending up on our Thanksgiving tables. How good a job does the Department of Agriculture do in making sure that these turkeys are free of biological or chemical contamination? With new looser federal legislation passed in 2008, only time will tell.

Since 1957, poultry inspection by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has been mandatory for all domestic birds slaughtered for consumption. The 2008 Farm Bill, however, now permits some state-inspected poultry products to enter interstate commerce without further federal inspection. All slaughterhouses are still required to have a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan in effect to maintain sanitary plant procedures, but it looks like enforcement of food safety will increasingly depend on state run inspections.

Despite the federal safeguards in place, it is perhaps inevitable that with so much poultry to inspect some contaminated products slip through the system. In 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2007 there were recalls of processed turkey products, based mainly on contamination with listeria monocytogenes, a virulent bacterial disease causing food poisoning. In 2002 alone, over 27 million pounds of “Pilgrim’s Pride” poultry products were involved in such recalls. None of these recalls, however, involved whole fresh or frozen turkeys.

It remains to be seen whether state inspections can realistically take the place of full federal inspections. Any outbreaks of contamination coming from state-only inspections will undoubtedly give rise to questions over relaxation of safety programs.

With whole turkeys, the best safety program starts at home. Proper kitchen techniques can reduce substantially the danger of contamination. Here are some simple tips:

  1. With fresh turkey, carefully inspect and smell the bird before bringing it home. Any strong or unusual odor should be immediate cause for rejection. Buy such fresh turkeys only 1 or 2 days before you plan to prepare them.
  2. With frozen turkeys, keep them frozen until you are ready to cook them. Never thaw your frozen turkey at room temperature. Defrost them either in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave following precise guidelines. Once thawed, never refreeze a turkey.
  3. Handle the turkey with freshly cleaned hands, implements, kitchen towels and cutting or cleaning surfaces. Unless you have an FSIS inspector in your kitchen, you are more likely to be the source of contamination than the processing plant.
  4. Handle and remove the internal organs far apart from other foods in order to avoid cross contamination.
  5. Be sure to cook the turkey to an internal temperature of between 165 and 180 Fahrenheit (74-82 Celsius) to be sure to kill any lingering bacteria.
  6. Many recommend that you cook any stuffing separately from the whole turkey, because stuffing can easily pick up bacterial contamination from the turkey cavity and remain insufficiently cooked to kill such germs. Careful monitoring of the cooking turkey can, however, reduce this concern for those who are convinced that stuffing in a cooked turkey just tastes (and looks) better. Just be sure that the stuffing itself warms to a temperature of at least 165 Fahrenheit (74 Celsius). Directly measure the stuffing’s temperature and do not depend on the temperature of the turkey which can be different. If the turkey is done but the stuffing is still not warm enough, your choice is either to overcook the turkey – not recommended – or to take the stuffing out of the turkey and continue to cook it separately.
  7. Carve and serve the turkey as soon as it has set up from the oven (about 20 minutes). Once meat starts to cool down, the contamination process can start all over again.
  8. Leftovers should be cut from the bone, stored in shallow containers, and refrigerated within 2 hours. They should be eaten with 3 days and thoroughly reheated.

As far as getting to that perfect state, where the meat is moist and the skin brown and crusty – sorry, you’re on your own.