Food Safety During Thanksgiving

By: Cassidy Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston & Wilson County Center

I realize the term “food safety” may not excite many people, but what if I told you “food safety” could be the difference between life and death for your loved one? The truth is that although we tend to take food safety for granted, its absence can be detrimental for certain groups of people.

Each year, an estimated 48 million people fall victim to foodborne illness, a.k.a. “food poisoning.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of those 48 million cases, there are 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 preventable deaths due to foodborne illness. These statistics may surprise you, but consumers often believe they have a ‘stomach bug’ when they in fact have foodborne illness. Symptoms may include fever, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, headaches, and abdominal pain. The worst part about foodborne illness is that there are numerous types and various onset times. You may show symptoms in as little as six hours or it could take up to two weeks.

Who is most at risk? We call the population that is most vulnerable to foodborne illness our “Y.O.P.I.” population. This includes those who are young, old, pregnant, and immune-compromised. Young children’s immune systems are still developing, and as we age, our immune system begins to deteriorate. Pregnancy naturally dampens the mother’s immune system in order for the unborn child to survive.

The immunocompromised may include those who have cancer, HIV/AIDS, or take certain medications. At Thanksgiving, you are likely sharing a meal with someone you love that fits into the Y.O.P.I. population. Help keep them, as well as yourself, safe this holiday by following these tips.

First, always wash your hands before preparing food, after handling raw meat, and before eating. Our hands are the number one way that food is contaminated and foodborne illness occurs.

Second, be sure you clean and sanitize your workspace, utensils, and cooking equipment before and after preparing food. If possible, use two separate cutting boards for produce and meats. If you only have one cutting board, be sure you prep those vegetables and foods you do not plan to cook before you handle any meats.

Third, plan ahead to be sure your turkey or meat is thawed properly. Improper thawing can boost the risk of foodborne illness. For every five pounds, allow 24 hours in the refrigerator to thaw. For example, if your turkey weighs 20 lbs., you will need 4 days for the turkey to thaw.

Tip #4: do not wash your poultry. In recent years, you have likely seen this message on local media around the time of Thanksgiving. We are no longer processing poultry at home, so there is no need to wash it. When the poultry is processed in a commercial setting, it is cleaned to reduce the amount of salmonella present. Washing it at home only further spreads remaining salmonella across your kitchen. Cooking to 165 degrees or using a sanitizing solution is the only way to kill these pathogens that cause foodborne illness.

My fifth tip is to cook foods to the correct internal temperature. You can’t see temperature, so you will need a tip-sensitive, digital thermometer. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, making sure not to touch any bone or fat and ensuring the thermometer is not reading your body heat. The proper internal temperature for your Thanksgiving turkey is 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If you plan to serve a ham, be sure it is cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

After all of that cooking and eating, I am sure you will be tired; however, be sure your put away leftovers within two hours. That’s right, I said it. Put those leftovers in the refrigerator within two hours. Leftovers should not sit for hours at room temperature, which is within the temperature danger zone. This is the range of temperature the food’s bacteria, or other pathogens, prefer to grow and reproduce to levels that your immune system can’t fight off.

Food is never sterile when we eat it. In fact, cooking the food reduces the pathogens to a level that your immune system can fight off. Think about it, if you cooked food and immediately sealed it off from the environment, it would still spoil or go bad- because it was never made sterile. Consumers are allowed two hours to put leftovers in the refrigerator in order to reduce the opportunity for those bacteria to multiply to the point of getting you, your family, or someone in that Y.O.P.I. population sick.

Protect yourself and your loved ones by following these tips. For questions regarding food safety, please call Johnston County Cooperative Extension at 919-989-5380.