The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service ( is the public health regulatory agency in the USDA responsible for ensuring that meat, poultry, and processed egg products are safe, wholesome and accurately labeled.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that foodborne illness results in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths in the United States annually.

This Thanksgiving Americans will consume more than 40 million turkeys. Holiday hosts must be especially careful not to serve up food poisoning.

Four Steps to Food Safety

• CLEAN: Clean hands, surfaces, and utensils with soap and warm water before cooking. Wash hands for 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat and poultry. After cleaning surfaces raw poultry has touched, also apply a sanitizer.

• SEPARATE: Use separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils to avoid cross-contamination between raw meat or poultry and foods that are ready to eat.

• COOK: Confirm foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature by using a food thermometer. Turkey should be cooked to 165°F and measured at the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing.

• CHILL: Chill foods promptly if not consuming immediately after cooking. Don’t leave food at room temperature for longer than two hours.

Recent USDA research conducted in a test kitchen found some startling insights about how bacteria may be spread around the kitchen when individuals are preparing raw poultry, especially when the raw poultry is washed or rinsed.

Poultry Washing and


Researchers analyzed the spread of bacteria from chicken thighs that had been spiked with harmless tracer bacteria. The microbiological data identified both direct and indirect cross-contamination that occurred during the meal preparation experiment.

The most frequently contaminated surface was the kitchen sink, even for the participants that did not wash or rinse the poultry.

This could explain where cross-contamination may have occurred especially if produce (i.e., the salad ingredients) was washed or rinsed in the sink. You should take extreme precautions when washing or rinsing a turkey (or any eggs, meat, or poultry products for that matter) before cooking. Juices can transfer bacteria onto kitchen surfaces, other foods, and utensils. Be sure to thoroughly clean and then sanitize all kitchen surfaces to eliminate the risk of cross-contamination.

Salad preparation should never take place in the sink anyway as that is a breeding area for germs.


Inadequate handwashing has been identified as a contributing factor to foodborne illness, especially when preparing raw meat and poultry. Hands can become vectors that move potential pathogens found in raw meat and poultry around the kitchen, which can contribute to foodborne illnesses.

Researchers observed 1,145 cases in which handwashing was required to prevent cross-contamination during meal preparation.

Of these, handwashing was not attempted 74% of the time, and 99% of the attempts did not contain all the steps of correct handwashing.

Proper hand washing after handling raw meat, poultry and eggs can greatly reduce the risk of bacterial cross-contamination. Hand washing should always include five simple steps:

1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.

2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.

4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.

5. Dry your hands using a clean towel.

Food Thermometer Use:

You can’t see, smell or feel bacteria on meat and poultry, so you should always use a food thermometer to make sure you have destroyed any illness causing bacteria, such as Salmonella or Campylobacter.

• 44% of participants in the study used a food thermometer on at least one chicken thigh. 20% of participants only used visual cues, 11% only used time and 9% only used touch.

Your turkey is safe to eat when the temperature reads 165°F in three places, the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing

Preparing Your Turkey

Fresh turkeys should not be purchased until one or two days before Thanksgiving, unless the manufacturer’s tag has a “Best By” or “Use-by” date that indicates the turkey will be safe until Thanksgiving. Fresh turkey: The “fresh” label means the turkey has never been chilled below 26°F. If you bring home a fresh turkey before Tuesday, it should be frozen before cooking.

A “frozen” turkey is a turkey that has been cooled to 0°F or lower. When purchasing a frozen turkey make sure to leave enough time for it to defrost.

• You should thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, in cold water or in a microwave oven according to the directions on the packaging.

• For instructions on microwave defrosting, refer to the owner’s manual for your microwave. Cook the turkey immediately after defrosting using this method.

• Do not stuff a turkey the night before cooking it. Harmful bacteria can multiply in the stuffing and cause food poisoning when a stuffed bird is refrigerated

Cooking Your Turkey

• To cook a large turkey, use the timetables for turkey roasting for an unstuffed turkey, which can be found in the Turkey Basics: Safe Cooking section of the FSIS website. Add 10 minutes per pound for turkeys over 24 pounds. FSIS does not recommend stuffing a turkey over 24 pounds.

• It is safe to cook a frozen turkey. The cooking time will take at least 50% longer than recommended for a fully thawed turkey.

• After cooking meat and poultry, keep it hot at 140°F or warmer, until served. The cooked meat can be kept hot in an oven set at approximately 200°F, in a chafing dish, slow cooker, or warming tray.

Thanksgiving Leftovers

Leftovers should be stored within two hours of cooking.

Dividing leftovers into smaller portions and refrigerating or freezing them in covered shallow containers helps cool leftovers more quickly than storing them in large containers.

Thanksgiving leftovers are safe in the refrigerator for up to four days. If you store leftovers in the freezer, they will be of best quality within 2-6 months.

Reheat leftovers thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165°F.

For more information and tips on preparing the Thanksgiving meal safely, visit or call the Meat and Poultry Hotline toll-free at 1-888-MPHotline (888-674-6854), open weekdays from 10am-6pm EST and from 8am-2pm EST on Thanksgiving Day.