Tips to Avoid Holiday Food Poisoning

Note: This article was originally published November 23rd, 2021, and was primarily written in the context of Thanksgiving. It has been updated as of December 16th, 2021, to cover food preparation for any large holiday family gathering as well as adding a section on timing the thawing of raw meat.

A major aspect of any holiday is the feasts, both large and small, with family and friends. With so many coming together to eat, here are some tips so you don’t ruin your holidays by getting yourself and your guests sick with food poisoning.

Handle Raw Meat the Right Way
No matter what meat you plan to serve, know that raw meat can contaminate anything it touches with harmful bacteria. Always remember to keep and prepare raw meat with separate utensils, surfaces, dishes, and containers that you are using for everything else. This means having separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils for raw meat. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also strongly recommends AGAINST washing raw meat like a turkey in the sink as this can further spread harmful bacteria.

Anything used in the preparation of raw meat needs to go in the sink after you are done using it and not used for anything else, even another meat if others are being served.

Basically, anything you touch while preparing your turkey, ham, chicken, beef, etc., will need to be washed and disinfected to avoid contamination and that includes your hands. Wash your hands and wrists with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling your raw turkey.

Thawing Takes Time
Don't wait to begin thawing the larger meats you plan to serve. Remember to never thaw raw meat on a counter at room temperature. The easiest and safest way to thaw the frozen meat is to put it in the refrigerator in the days leading up to your meal. According to the US Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a good rule to follow is that for every 5 pounds the frozen meat weighs, it takes at least a full day of 24hrs to thaw. So if your turkey is 15 pounds, it will take 3 days to safely thaw.

There are a couple of other methods you can use to thaw raw frozen meat but each has major drawbacks and safety concerns. Thawing in cold water runs the risk of contaminating the water the raw meat is thawing in. Using a microwave can make thawing uneven and the meat prematurely cook. You can cook meat straight from the freezer, but the FSIS notes that cooking times will take 50% longer. Plan accordingly!

Thoroughly Cook Everything
No matter how much of an expert someone in your family claims to be, raw meat like turkey and any stuffing must be fully cooked to avoid food poisoning. Always use a food thermometer – DO NOT eyeball it. All poultry and stuffing should have an internal temperature of at least 165° F (73.9° C) if not higher. Raw beef needs to be cooked to at least 145° F (62.8° C). Raw ham should be cooked to 145° F (62.8° C), but pre-cooked hams should be brought up to 140° F (60° C) if USDA-inspected and 165° F (73.9° C) for all others. Reheat any leftovers to at least 165° F (73.9° C).

The thermometer should be inserted into the thickest part of the meat without touching bone, gristle, or the pan it is cooking in. If you are using a food thermometer that does not stay in while cooking in the oven, make sure to sanitize it between tests. The easiest method is to hold the stem in boiling water for no-less-than 30 seconds. Clean it with hot soapy water after that.

Don’t Wait to Refrigerate
Clostridium perfringens is a bacterium that grows in cooked food when left at room temperature. According to the CDC, not only is it the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning, but most cases occur during the holiday season in November and December. Any food that is prepared should go into a refrigerator set to at least 40° F (4.4° C) or lower within two hours of preparation. As stated earlier, remember to reheat any leftovers to at least 165° F (73.9° C).

Did You Know There is a Hotline?
If you have any questions about your turkey cooking, you can call the official Butterball® Turkey Talk-Line. For over four decades, Americans have been able to call to get advice from experts on properly preparing and cooking their turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They are not associated with Twin Rivers Urgent Care in any way, but if you need any advice, call 1-800-288-8372. You can also text 844-877-3456.

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