Avoid foodborne illnesses this Thanksgiving

Improper defrosting and handling of turkey, which most cooks prepare only once a year, can cause rapid bacteria growth.

Turkeys are shown in a pen at Root Down Farm in Pescadero, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.
Turkeys are shown in a pen at Root Down Farm in Pescadero, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. –(AP Photo/Haven Daley)

Experts warn that Thanksgiving gatherings could contribute to the spread of covid-19. But there’s another type of disease to be cautious of while cooking your Turkey Day feast: foodborne illness.

An estimated 1 in 6 Americans get sick from foodborne illness each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

And because of the many pitfalls of preparing and storing lots of food, Thanksgiving can be prime time for foodborne pathogens.

Improper defrosting and handling of turkey, which most cooks prepare only once a year, can cause rapid bacteria growth. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are three safe ways to thaw food.

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In the fridge, cooks should thaw the bird in a container that holds any juices released during the thaw and plan for at least 24 hours for each four to five pounds. The USDA recommends the refrigerator be set at a temperature of 40 degrees or below for the thaw.

Another option is a cold-water thaw – about 30 minutes per pound for a wrapped turkey, with water changed every half-hour. It’s also safe to defrost in the microwave, as long as the turkey is cooked immediately after.

Never wash raw turkey, the CDC warns: According to a 2019 USDA study, 60% of cooks who washed raw poultry had bacteria in their sink afterward. Use a separate cutting board for the raw meat and never put cooked meat back on a surface where raw turkey sat. And make sure turkey and stuffing get to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees before serving.

Improper storage of cooked foods is another risk. Outbreaks of Clostridium perfringens, the second most common cause of bacterial foodborne infections, occur most often in November and December, when gatherings lead to lots of leftovers.

To combat the bacteria, which grows in cooked foods at room temperature, be sure to refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible. The CDC recommends cooked foods be left out for only two hours after preparation.

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About 128,000 hospitalizations each year are caused by foodborne illnesses. With the U.S. hospital system stretched to its limit because of covid-19, it’s worth a bit of extra caution during your Thanksgiving meal.

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