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6 Ways Your Holiday Turkey Can Make You Sick

People most often get sick from leftovers during the holiday season

spinner image turkey cooking in the oven
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Everyone has a favorite Thanksgiving side dish or dessert, but the one staple 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, they sometimes make simple mistakes that can lead to foodborne illnesses — not to mention a bird that doesn’t taste so good. Improperly handling and undercooking poultry are the most common reasons people get sick from chicken and turkey, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 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 is even more important in that age group.”

Take note of these six ways your turkey can make you sick.

1. You thawed your bird incorrectly

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°F — 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 from 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 raw turkey.

3 ways to thaw your turkey safely

  1. 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.
  2. Put it into a leakproof plastic bag in a sink of cold water. But change the water every 30 minutes.
  3. Thaw it in the microwave, following the manufacturer’s instructions.

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.”

3. It’s undercooked

An undercooked turkey can be contaminated with a number of bacteria, viruses, germs and other toxins that can make people sick.

“The only real guarantee is having a turkey that is free of bacteria after it’s cooked to the appropriate temperature, and for poultry that’s 165°F in your deeper cut of meats. And not just on the surface but inside as well,” Gleason explains. That means inserting a meat thermometer into the thickest portion of the breast, thigh and wing joint and making sure the meat has reached 165°F.


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4. You stuffing isn’t cooked thoroughly

Although some people like to cook their stuffing inside the bird, preparing it separately in a casserole dish is recommended for food safety.

If you do put the stuffing in the turkey, mix the wet and dry ingredients separately and then combine them right before you put the bird in the oven. The turkey should be stuffed loosely, about ¾ cup per pound of turkey. (Any extra stuffing should be baked in a greased casserole dish.) Once you take the turkey out of the oven, make sure your stuffing has reached 165°F before you eat it. Waiting 20 minutes after taking the turkey out of the oven will allow it to cook a little more.

5. You left your cooked turkey on the table too long

The best part of Thanksgiving can be the nap that follows dinner or the games in the backyard, but first put your turkey into the refrigerator. Even after it is cooked, meat shouldn’t be left in the danger zone of 40 to 140°F for more than two hours. Also, reheating meat to 165°F after leaving it out for more than two hours does not guarantee it is safe.

“Some bacteria actually can form spores, which sort of protects them. And even in the scenario of reheating, there still is a risk involved,” Gleason warns.

When it’s time to reheat your leftovers that were refrigerated within two hours, make sure they reach at least 165°F before serving them.

6. You improperly stored your leftovers

Bacteria grows on foods left out at room temperature, and outbreaks caused by contaminated food occur most often in November and December. Leftovers should be put into the refrigerator at a temperature below 40°F within two hours of cooking. If you divide the large portions of the turkey into smaller pieces, they will cool more quickly.

Make sure to keep track of how long your turkey is stored in the fridge. Cooked turkey keeps for three to four days in the refrigerator and four to six months in the freezer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tips to Avoid Cooking Fires

Thanksgiving is the leading day for home fires involving cooking equipment, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Avoid a fire by taking these precautions.

  • Start holiday cooking with a clean stove and oven by removing food and grease buildup.
  • Avoid distractions and stay in the kitchen while cooking.
  • Stay at home when cooking your turkey, set a timer and check on it frequently.
  • Keep children away from the stove and utilize the back burners.
  • Never fry a turkey indoors, in a garage or on a covered patio.
  • Make sure your turkey is completely thawed before frying.

Source: Missouri Department of Public Safety

Editor's Note: This article, originally published Nov. 16, 2021, has been updated to include one additional tip.

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