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News Release

Accent photo

Let’s Talk Turkey: Food Safety Often Overlooked at the Holidays

ST. CHARLES, Ill. – Family meals are an important part of the holidays, and often careful attention is paid to recipes and menu choices. However, holiday cheer can turn to jeers when foodborne illness is inadvertently invited to the party.

As we prepare to celebrate the season, University of Illinois Extension Educator Laura Barr reminds consumers to keep current food safety recommendations on the front burner.

“We hear much debate this time of year about how to thaw, prep and stuff a turkey,” said Barr, a Nutrition and Wellness Educator, serving DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties.  “Too often, missed steps or misconceptions of recommended practices can lead to people getting sick.”

The Truth about Thawing

“Our food system, and what we know about food safety, has changed drastically in the last few decades,” said Barr. “That can contradict some more traditional methods of cooking the holiday feast.”

Thawing a turkey is done in many ways, but not all methods are safe. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirms that a package of frozen meat or poultry left thawing on the counter for more than two hours is never at a safe temperature.

“A product starts thawing from the outer layer first at room temperature,” said Barr. “Therefore, the outer layer is in the danger zone for an unacceptable amount of time. It is unsafe to thaw any meat at room temperature, especially a large bird.”

While there is no bacterial growth in a frozen turkey, the danger zone for food is between 41 degrees Fahrenheit (F) to 135 degrees F, she said. There are three safe ways to thaw meat: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave oven.

In a refrigerator set at 40 degrees F or below, the USDA advises to allow approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds thawing, and a fully thawed turkey then can remain in the refrigerator only 1 to 2 days before cooking it.  Be careful to contain juices from the thawing turkey to avoid cross-contamination of other foods and surfaces.

“It may seem simple, but this will take some planning,” Barr said. “Be sure to accurately schedule when to take out a frozen bird based on the cooking day. For example, it will take about three days for a 15-pound turkey to thaw in the refrigerator, but you could not begin that process a week before the event because then it would remain thawed too long.”

Frozen meat also may be thawed in cold tap water, completely submerged and the water must be changed every 30 minutes until the product is completely thawed, and immediately cooked  Barr said. Additionally, the product needs to be packaged in a waterproof container to prevent cross-contamination and an undesirable texture change in the meat.

“The same 15-pound turkey would thaw in 7 hours in cold water, versus 3 to 4 days in a refrigerator,” she said. “But, the cold water method is more labor intensive, and you must always cook a cold water thawed turkey immediately.”

When using a microwave, the USDA advises to “follow microwave oven manufacturer's instructions for defrosting a turkey.” It also recommends cooking the thawed product immediately because some areas of the food may be warm and more susceptible to bacteria growth.

“However, you choose to thaw your bird, consider it a critical control point to ensure safety, taste and texture of your holiday meal’s star,” Barr said.


The Proper Prep

In the past, families would start preparing their holiday birds much earlier in the food process, Barr said. Traditionally, the bird was butchered, plucked, washed and cooked in the home.

“Some consumers today still wash poultry because the practice has been passed down through the generations,” she said. “However, today, running water in and over a turkey, or other poultry, is not necessary because it is cleaned in the packaging process. In fact, washing the bird at home actually increases the potential for food-borne illness, as it spreads salmonella and other pathogens in the sink and around the food preparation area.”

Remember that cooking poultry thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F, and maintaining that temperature for 15 seconds, will destroy any bacteria, said Barr.


Stuffing Safety

There still remains the controversy about cooking holiday birds with or without stuffing.

“In support of optimal safety and consistent doneness, cooking the stuffing separately is our recommendation,” said Barr. “Following tradition, some cook the stuffing and turkey together. However, the turkey will reach doneness before the stuffing inside the bird. In this case, a probe food thermometer is essential to ensure stuffing has reached and held the proper internal temperature.”

If it has not maintained that internal temperature of 165 degrees F for 15 seconds, Barr said to keep cooking the turkey together with the stuffing until it does. Otherwise, the undercooked stuffing may likely contaminate the cooked meat, she said.


Critical Cooling

It also is critical to refrigerate Time and Temperature Control (TCS) foods quickly after serving the meal. This includes meats, stuffing, casseroles, some salads, cooked grains and vegetables, and even sliced fruit.

The fastest bacterial growth occurs between 70 degrees F and 125 degrees F, which is close to room temperature, Barr said. As bacteria multiply, so does the risk of food-borne illness. The less time TCS foods are in the danger zone, the safer the food for consumption. If it is a buffet-style event, keep appropriate foods chilled while serving, and remember to put all TCS foods away within two hours, advised Barr.

“So, if a potentially hazardous food sits out for two hours, it is best to toss it,” she said. “As the saying goes, ‘when in doubt, throw it out.’”

When it comes to leftovers, it may be best to divide and conquer, said Barr.

“You can separate dishes into smaller servings, which are easier to cool and will come in handy later. If you have more than you can tackle in three to four days, send some home with friends and family, or freeze some for the next week.”

For more information, visit the "Turkey for the Holidays" website at or check out Barr's Thanksgiving videos at

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Source: Laura Barr, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness,