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Food and Dining
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Is Your Holiday Turkey in Jeopardy?

By Pat Moriarty and Barbara O'Brien

Defrosted on the counter, prestuffed, slow baked, partially cooked, stored whole without carving...? If any of these situations sounds like your usual Thanksgiving dinner preparation plans, you may be putting your turkey in jeopardy.

Over the last six years, USDA's staff on the Meat and Poultry Hotline have faced many challenges trying to save Thanksgiving turkeys that have been prepared in questionable ways. "It's difficult to advise consumers on Thanksgiving day that the turkey they have worked so hard to serve may not be safe to eat," says Susan Templin Conley, Hotline Manager.

According to Conley, there are six basic problems that Hotline staff members hear every year. Read on to see if you unknowingly may be creating any of these scenarios.

Mistake 1: Defrosting at Room Temperature

"We've always done it that way...There's no room in the refrigerator...We forgot it was in the trunk of the car...It's in a cold basement." While there are many reasons why consumers find themselves with turkeys defrosted at room temperature, some planned and some unplanned, the result is the same--a potentially unsafe turkey. Bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature. Bacteria will begin to grow on the outside portion of the bird that defrosts first. These surface bacteria can multiply to dangerously high levels that cooking may not destroy.

Instead

Plan on 1 day of refrigerator defrost time for every 5 pounds of turkey. A 10-pound turkey will take approximately 2 days to defrost in the refrigerator, a 15-pound turkey 3 days and a 20-pound turkey 4 days.

Some callers worry that a frozen turkey will spoil if left in the refrigerator for 4 days. Don't be concerned. Even after a turkey fully defrosts, it is safe in the refrigerator for an additional 1-2 days.

If you forget to take your turkey out of the freezer early enough, don't panic. You're not in hot water yet, especially if you remember to use the COLD WATER technique. Even a 20-pound frozen turkey can be defrosted in 10 hours using the cold water defrost method. Submerge the wrapped bird in cold water, adding ice or new cold water every 30 minutes.

Mistake 2: Prestuffing a Turkey the Night Before

It's okay to prestuff Christmas stockings, but not Thanksgiving birds! Stuffing a turkey the night before is risky business. The cavity of the bird actually insulates the stuffing from cold temperatures, and can keep the stuffing in a temperature range that encourages bacterial growth.

Instead

Prepare dry stuffing ingredients the day before. Tightly cover and leave at room temperature. The perishables-butter, or margarine, mushrooms, oysters, cooked celery and onion, broth- should be refrigerated. Combine the dry and wet ingredients and stuff the bird immediately before the turkey goes into the oven.

Mistake 3: Cooking at Low Temperature Overnight

Every year Hotline staff members worry about "how low consumers will go" when it comes to oven temperature settings. On Thanksgiving Day in 1990, Hotline staff talked with numerous families who calmly slept the night away while bacteria were busily multiplying on their turkeys in 200F ovens. Cooking below 325F is unsafe because low temperatures permit the bird (and stuffing) to remain in the "danger zone" (140F) too long. While in this "zone" bacteria can grow and some produce heat-resistant toxins.

Instead

Cook perishable foods at an oven temperature no lower that 325F.

Mistake 4: Partially Cooking a Bird the Day Before

Some time-savers are safer than others. Partially cooking a turkey is not one of them. Interrupted cooking can actually increase the possibility of bacteria growth. The turkey may be heated long enough to activate bacterial growth, but not long enough to kill it.

Instead

Cook turkey completely in one operation. Several other ideas for SAFE time saving include: 1) Using oven cooking bags, 2) Baking stuffing separately from the turkey, 3) Cooking and carving turkey 1 to 2 days before the holiday, and storing it in the refrigerator for reheating on the big day.

Mistake 5: Cooking a Turkey Ahead of Time and Leaving It Whole in the Refrigerator

Cooking the turkey a day or two before the holiday is fine, but refrigerating the bird whole, without carving, is another form of turkey jeopardy. A cooked turkey, stuffed or unstuffed, is to big and to dense to cool down quickly and efficiently in a home refrigerator. In addition, reheating the turkey the next day in a slow oven to prevent drying out could allow even more growth of potential food poisoning bacteria.

Instead

Roast the turkey 1 or 2 days before the holiday. Use a meat thermometer to make sure that the bird reaches 180F. Remove stuffing immediately after taking bird out od oven. Allow the turkey to sit for 20 to 30 minutes so that the meat juices can settle. Carve the bird into appropriate serving slices. Arrange turkey slices in shallow baking pans. Cover and refrigerate. Reheat Thanksgiving Day in a conventional oven or microwave. Make sure that meat and stuffing are reheated to "steamy hot", 165F.

Problem 6: Power Failure

The oven broke down, an ice storm downed power lines, there's no gas for the gas grill. You can't keep your bird hot...or you can't keep your bird cold.

These unplanned situations do arise through the fault of no one. Besides causing anxiety and stress, they can also lead to an unsafe bird.

Solution:

Time is of the essence. If your bird has been in any of these situations for over 2 hours, your turkey could become risky. After 2 hours the turkey enters the "danger zone" where food poisoning bacteria can multiply rapidly. But to discuss your unique situation, call a food expert at the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline answers questions on the safe storage and handling of meat, poultry and other perishable foods. Normal hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, Eastern Time. In November the hours will be extended to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Hotline will also be open the weekend before Thanksgiving, Nov. 23 and Nov. 24, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Thanksgiving Day, the lines will operate 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 1-800-535-4555. Washington, D.C. area residents call 202-447-3333.

Source: National Food Safety Database. This document was adapted from an article in (FSIS, US Department of Agriculture) Food News For Consumers. Pat Moriarty, R.D. and Barbara O'Brian, contributers to Food News for Consumers Magazine, United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service publication.

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