Food safety expert discusses how to keep Thanksgiving healthy

Friday, Nov. 18, 2016

Thanksgiving meal

Turkey and other poultry must be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

OLATHE — A Kansas State University Olathe food safety specialist offers tips that will help families keep foodborne illness off the guest list this Thanksgiving.

"People don't always get sick from bad food safety practices," said Londa Nwadike, a consumer food safety specialist for K-State Research and Extension and the University of Missouri Extension. "Foodborne illnesses are unpredictable, though, and there could easily come a time when you get really sick from a bad practice you had or from a bad practice by another person."

Nwadike has advice on how to keep food safe from the store to storage.

Food safety starts at the store, Nwadike said. Shop for canned and boxed goods before adding refrigerated and frozen items to the cart. This decreases the time that turkey, milk and other perishables have to thaw and warm to unsafe temperatures.

"It's also best to put eggs and any perishable meat items that may drip raw juices, like a turkey, under your cart," Nwadike said. "It not only saves room in your cart, but it makes sure that if these raw meats leak, they do so on the floor and not on your lettuce or bread."

As common sense as it sounds, make sure there is enough room in the refrigerator or freezer to store a turkey and close the door, Nwadike said. If the turkey is being refrigerated, the fridge should not be overly full so that air can circulate and keep the food cold.

The uncooked turkey and other raw meats should be stored on the bottom shelf or as low as possible in the refrigerator to reduce the likelihood of raw juices dripping onto the food below. If possible, put the meat on a pan to trap any juices that may leak. Conversely, fresh produce should be stored at the top of the refrigerator.

Turkeys can be thawed in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave, Nwadike said.

"If you're thawing the bird in the fridge, it's going to take about 24 hours for every 4-5 lbs.," Nwadike said. "That means if you have a 10 lb. turkey, it's going to take two days. If it's a 20 lb. turkey, it will be four days."

If cold water is used, the water should be changed every 30 minutes so that the inside and outside of the turkey thaw at nearly the same rate. Because thawing the bird in the microwave will partially cook it, the turkey should be transferred to the oven immediately so that it can cook fully.

Cooks also can forgo the thawing process and put the frozen turkey in the oven to cook, Nwadike said. The tradeoff is that the bird needs at least 50 percent longer in the oven to fully cook. Additionally, fresh turkeys can be purchased at the store and offer the benefit of not needing to be thawed, though they should only remain in the refrigerator for 1-2 days before being cooked.

Preparation and cooking
Never wash a raw turkey in the sink, Nwadike said.

"When the water hits the bird, it's splashing around and mixing with the juices that could contain germs," she said. "That runoff could splash onto the paper towels, utensils and other things near your sink, contaminating them. There is no benefit to washing a turkey and you're not removing anything by washing it. When you cook it to the proper temperature, it will remove the germs."

While turkey and stuffing are a classic pairing, Nwadike recommends baking the stuffing separately from the bird for maximum food safety. However, if tradition prevails, turkeys can be stuffed. Pack the stuffing loosely in the turkey cavity and be sure it is moist to avoid the stuffing being too dry and to let heat better penetrate it. Stuffing should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit in the center to kill any germs from the turkey juices that have leaked onto the stuffing while in the oven.

Turkey and other poultry must reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit to be food safe. While many turkeys come with a pop-up thermometer, the devices are often not accurate and should only be used as a rough indicator for where the bird is at in the cooking process. A calibrated, tip-sensitive meat thermometer is the only proven method for telling when poultry has been cooked to the food safe temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, she said.

"Color and smell are not accurate indicators of when the turkey is cooked," Nwadike said. "We want to make sure that we're killing any harmful microorganisms that might be in the bird. The only way to kill them is by heat, not color or smell."

Three parts of the turkey also must reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit temperature: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the innermost part of the thigh. These regions are the most difficult for heat to penetrate, Nwadike said.

One other important thing to remember: "It takes a lot longer to cook a turkey than you think," Nwadike said.

Storing leftovers
Food safety does not end once the dinner is served, Nwadike said. She suggests cooks keep the following in mind when it comes to leftovers:

• Two hours is the longest food should sit at room temperature before it is refrigerated or frozen.

• Divide leftovers into smaller portion sizes, especially the turkey, so that it cools faster. Smaller portion sizes also can be used to assemble quick grab-and-go meals that can be refrigerated or frozen.

• Pack food in shallow containers so that the heat can dissipate faster.

• Ceramic crockpots can maintain heat for long periods. If food in the crockpot is reaching the 2-hour window, the heat can be dissipated by transferring food to smaller containers, frequently stirring the food, or transferring the crockpot into an ice bath in the sink.

• Keep refrigerated leftovers for 3-4 days before discarding them. Refrigerated leftovers can be transferred to the freezer during this time window, though they will only be as food safe coming out of the freezer as they were going into it.

• Gravy is only food safe for 1-2 days in the refrigerator.