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Everyone has a favorite Thanksgiving side dish or dessert, but the one staple that most people look forward to is the turkey. About 46 million birds are cooked on Thanksgiving, and another 22 million are served on Christmas, according to the National Turkey Federation.
But since most home chefs don't routinely cook whole turkeys, simple mistakes can lead to foodborne illnesses, as well as a bird that doesn't taste so good. Improperly handled and undercooked poultry are the most common reasons that people get sick from chicken and turkey, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And this can be especially harmful to older adults.
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"Older adults [should] be even more cautious about not consuming raw foods or undercooked foods and avoid cross contamination,” says Brigette Gleason, medical epidemiologist for the CDC's Enteric Disease Epidemiology branch. “So following basic food safety principles are even more important in that age group.”
Take note of these five ways your turkey can make you sick.
1. You thawed your bird incorrectly
3 Ways to Thaw Your Turkey Safely
- Place it in the refrigerator in a container. “Which can take quite a while, usually a day for every four or five pounds of meat. So it could be several days if you have a bigger turkey,” Gleason says.
- Put it into a leakproof plastic bag in a sink of cold water. But change the water every 30 minutes.
- Thaw in the microwave, following the manufacturer's instructions.
You should never thaw your turkey by leaving it on the counter at room temperature. Actually, no food should be left out in what is called the danger zone — between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit — for more than two hours, because this is when bacteria grow rapidly.
2. You washed your turkey
Anyone who comes in contact with raw poultry can be contaminated with harmful bacteria, particularly salmonella. The bacteria puts those age 65 and over at high risk of serious symptoms related to an infection that can spread to other organs. That's why the CDC urges home chefs to clean, separate, cook and chill poultry, which can prevent the spread of bacteria.
- Wash your hands with warm, soapy water before and after handling turkey.
- Do not wash raw turkey; doing so can cause its juices to spread in the kitchen and contaminate other foods, utensils and countertops.
- Use a separate cutting board for raw turkey, and don't place other cooked food or fresh produce on anything that touched the raw meat or its juices.
"I would caution that sometimes just because our grandparents or parents did something a certain way doesn't mean it is the safe way to do something,” Gleason says. “We've seen surveys where people will say, ‘Well, I wash my turkey because that's what my mom did.’ But actually, washing your turkey is a high-risk activity."