Published on 11/17/97

Proper Handling Keeps Holiday Turkey Safe

Consumers' most often asked questions about food safety are about turkey, say officials at the
U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.

"Most people probably don't cook turkey very often, and they want to make sure they do it
correctly," said Judy Harrison, an extension food safety specialist with the University of Georgia.

Safe turkey dinners, she said, start in the store.

"Always check the labels carefully before you buy a turkey," Harrison said.

Although federal regulations don't require product dating, many stores and processors may
voluntarily date packages of turkey.

Usually date labels will be "sell by," "best if used by," or "use by." They tell the store how long
to display the product and the shopper how long its peak quality lasts.

But product dates aren't guides for the safe use of turkey. You must follow safe handling
guidelines, too.

"Make sure you don't keep the turkey in the car too long after you buy it or it could warm up to
a temperature that will allow bacteria to grow," Harrison said. "Make the grocery store the last stop
before you go home."

Once you are home, put the turkey in the refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or freeze it at zero degrees Fahrenheit immediately.

"You can generally keep fresh turkey in the refrigerator for one to two days safely," Harrison said.
"Cooked turkey is usually safe for three to four days."

For best quality, cook and use frozen turkey within nine to 12 months.

Turkey is known to have carried some food-borne illness- causing organisms, including
Salmonella, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus and Listeria monocytogenes.

Salmonella, one of the most common food-borne pathogens associated with poultry, may be found
in the intestinal tracts of livestock, poultry and many other warm-blooded animals, and inside fresh

"People become infected with Salmonella when they ingest the live bacteria," Harrison said. "The
bacteria then reproduce in the small intestines and can cause nausea, diarrhea,  abdominal pains and

Thorough cooking destroys Salmonella bacteria.

Food-borne illness is often introduced to your meal when you defrost the turkey.

"Either defrost the turkey in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave," Harrison said.
"Never defrost a turkey on the counter top."

When defrosting a turkey in the refrigerator, plan ahead for slow, safe thawing. Allow about one
day for every five pounds of turkey.

If you defrost it in cold water, make sure it's in an airtight package or leak-proof bag. Submerge
the bird or cut-up parts in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes to be sure it stays cold.

Only microwave-thaw a turkey if you plan to cook it right away. Some parts of the meat may get
warm enough to allow bacteria to grow quickly.

If your holiday plans don't include cooking, and you plan to have your dinner cooked elsewhere,
use these precautions:

  •  If dinner is picked up or delivered hot, the food must be kept at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above and eaten within two hours. It's not a good idea to try to keep foods hot longer than two hours.
  •   If holding the foods longer than two hours, remove all stuffing from the turkey cavity, divide the turkey into smaller pieces and refrigerate everything in separate, shallow containers. Reheat it thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, using a meat thermometer to check.
  •   If the dinner is prepared, but refrigerated when you pick it up, keep it cold. Refrigerate immediately when you get home (always within two hours). Serve the meal within two days.
  •   Reheating a whole turkey is not recommended.
If you have more questions about how to safely prepare your holiday meal, call the county
extension office or the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1- 800-535-4555. If you're on-line, check the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service Home Page.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.