Thanksgiving food safety tips

3,000 die each year from foodborne illness in the U.S.

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Americans on Thursday will be sitting down with family and friends for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

Preparing a turkey dinner was a team project for the students and staff at Emerson School of Hospitality, a Buffalo high school. The team first row, left to right: Alana Vines, Khali Kozlowski and Jessica, Roth, instructor. Second row, left to right: Elizabeth Lawrence, Linoshka Alejandro, James Malley, instructor. Third row, left to right: Mario Ross, Lance Cofield.
Preparing a turkey dinner was a team project for the students and staff at Emerson School of Hospitality, a Buffalo high school. The team first row, left to right: Alana Vines, Khali Kozlowski and Jessica, Roth, instructor. Second row, left to right: Elizabeth Lawrence, Linoshka Alejandro, James Malley, instructor.
Third row, left to right: Mario Ross, Lance Cofield.

For some, it means the first attempt at cooking what can be a tricky meal that requires timing, patience and a sense of humor.

Let’s face it. Thanksgiving is probably the largest meal many cooks prepare all year.

It’s a day that can bring about a certain amount of pressure regardless of whether a host is experienced at roasting a turkey.

Even the most experienced cook can use a refresher on some of the pitfalls.

For example, is the bird fresh or frozen? The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends purchasing a fresh turkey no more than two days before Thanksgiving.

“You can’t rush it. You have to take your time,” said James Malley, a culinary instructor at Emerson School of Hospitality in Buffalo.

If it’s frozen, figure a day of thawing in the refrigerator for every five pounds.

But whatever you do, make sure the turkey is thawed completely before cooking.

“You never want to cook a turkey frozen,” said Malley. Malley, who’s been a culinary instructor with the Buffalo Public Schools for 17 years, says it’ll be stuck in the danger zone – meaning it won’t be cooked all the way through to the proper temperature. “It will never cook thoroughly. It will never reach that point,” he said.

And that’s a big problem. About 20 percent of foodborne illnesses are attributed to food prepared in the home, according to Robert Gravani, a professor of food science at Cornell University.

“They need to cook foods thoroughly and then they need to chill the leftovers properly,” said Gravani. “If they do all of those things we can avoid home foodborne illnesses.”

Foodborne illness is no laughing matter. According to the USDA,  3,000 deaths and an estimated 50 million illnesses occur each year in the United States from foodborne illnesses, which stem from eating contaminated food.

“We need to think about and talk to consumers about how they can do a better of job of preparing food in their own homes,” said Gravani.

Gravani recommends cleaning your hands, utensils and equipment, and whatever comes in contact with food. He says to keep raw foods of animal origins separate from cooked foods, and from foods that will be eaten raw.

Most cases of foodborne illness can be prevented with proper cooking and food processing.

“Wash your hands frequently during the cooking process. At least three times at the beginning, in the middle and after,” added Malley.

Watch out for cooked and ready-to-eat foods becoming  cross-contaminated with pathogens transferred from raw foods like poultry.

“When you’re working with raw turkey on a cutting board in your house. When you get done and the process is all completed make sure you wash up. A little soap and water. A little bit of bleach, too,” said Malley.

Poultry may contain harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, Listeria and Campylobacter that can cause infectious diarrhea and more serious complications, according to Erie County Health Department Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.

Some prefer to rinse or wash the turkey. The USDA suggests not doing that because it could spread pathogens onto kitchen surfaces.

Once the bird is seasoned, it’s time for the oven. A 22 to 24 pound turkey unstuffed takes about 4 1/2 hours to cook at 325 °F. Add about another hour if it’s stuffed. Remember, the safe minimum internal temperature for poultry is 165 °F.

You can check the turkey’s temperature by inserting a thermometer in three places: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing, according to the USDA.

What about the stuffing? “What you should never do is make stuffing and put it in a raw turkey and let it sit overnight in a refrigerator. Don’t do that. Never do that,” said Emerson’s Malley.

He usually waits until the last 45 minutes of cooking before he pulls off the foil tent and stuffs the turkey with a bread, celery, onion, seasonings and a chicken stock mixture.

“I never liked to put bread in a raw bird and have it cook up. I’ve just never done that,” said Malley. Experts say the stuffing inside the turkey should also be cooked to at least 165 °F.

Managing leftovers after dinner also can be tricky.

It’s definitely not a good idea to keep things out too long.

“The longer it sits at room temperature you open up the possibility of bacteria multiplying as it sits. You don’t want to do that,” said Malley.

According to the USDA, leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours to prevent bacteria from growing on the food.

“As soon as dinner is over wrap it up,” said Malley. “Put it in the cooler. Put it in the refrigerator. Refrigerate everything as soon as possible.”

Food experts say do not store stuffing inside a leftover turkey. Instead, remove the stuffing from the turkey and refrigerate it separate from the meat.

Provided you have timed everything just right, the traditional Thanksgiving meal will be ready to be served and will be a sight to behold at the dinner table.

Malley has one last leftover piece of advice for those hosting the big dinner, “Take your time. There can’t be a rush involved in this whole process we call Thanksgiving.”

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