8 Essential Thanksgiving Food Safety Rules to Avoid Getting Anyone Sick This Year

Whether cooking a turkey for the first time or just reheating takeout, following these smart steps is smarter than ever.

Whether hosting a traditional celebration, contemplating an outdoor dinner party, hosting your first family gettogether, or planning a two-person feast; the one thing that should be at the forefront of every celebration is food safety. But even the most experienced Thanksgiving dinner hosts need a reminder of food safety mistakes that could put their guests at risk. The answer is easy: Come prepared.

We spoke with Tamika Sims, PhD, senior director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council; and Veronika Pfaeffle, public affairs specialist in the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), about the most important Thanksgiving food safety dos and don'ts.

01 of 08

Do defrost the turkey safely.

Defrosting your main dish the wrong way is one the most dangerous mistakes you can make. Turkey (as well as other types of poultry and meat—chicken, duck, roast beef, ham, or lamb) is often front and center on the holiday dinner table. According to Sims, if you purchase these items well in advance, the safest way to store them is freezing, so using the proper defrosting technique is essential.

The key is planning. "The USDA's FSIS advises that the proper way to thaw a turkey or any other type of meat is to not leave it out at room temperature or anywhere else that might fluctuate in temperature," explains Sims. "There are three ways to defrost a turkey properly: in a refrigerator, in cold water, or in a microwave."

Also, when storing the turkey (or other meat or poultry) ahead of time, make sure it's wrapped securely to maintain quality and to prevent meat juices from getting onto other food.

RELATED: The Simple Secret to Safely Cooking Meat From Frozen—Whether It's Steak, Chicken, or Pork

02 of 08

Don't wash your turkey.

In a recent study, the USDA found that 60 percent of kitchen sinks were contaminated with germs after participants washed or rinsed poultry. "To avoid this cross-contamination risk, do not wash your turkey," says Pfaeffle. "However, if you do wash your turkey or put your turkey in the sink, you need to fully clean and sanitize your sink."

03 of 08

Don't eat raw cookie dough (or anything else with raw eggs or flour).

"Baking often also picks up during the holidays. And while we often recommend safe food-handling practices like using clean utensils, cooking foods to their proper temperatures, and storing foods properly to help to reduce the risk of foodborne illness; an additional very important food safety fact to cling to is not consuming raw foods that are designed to be cooked before eating them," says Sims. This includes raw cookie dough (and other raw dough), which reminds us about the safe handling and consumption of flour and eggs.

According to Sims, flour is an agricultural product designed to be cooked before it's consumed. "This means that some bacterial contaminants from the grains used to produce the flour can still remain in the product before it is cooked, namely Escherichia coli (E. coli). Consumption of harmful strains of E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, pneumonia, and other illnesses as well."

By the same token, avoid eating raw eggs, which can harbor Salmonella bacteria. Among the many symptoms it causes are vomiting, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal pain, Sims says.

RELATED: The 5 Germiest Places in Your Kitchen Aren't What You Think (Plus How To Clean Them)

04 of 08

Don't leave perishable foods out for longer than 2 hours.

"Once food is set out and ready for consumption, you should consider using covered chafing dishes or warming trays to keep hot foods hot, and ice or other cold source to keep cold foods cold," Sims explains. Otherwise, food can enter what the USDA calls the "danger zone," between 40° and 140°F, where bacteria quickly multiplies. Never leave perishable foods in the danger zone for more than 2 hours, or 1 hour if it's above 90°F. After time's up, put food that's been sitting out in your fridge or freezer.

05 of 08

Do use a thermometer when cooking meat—and remember 165°F.

Eating raw or undercooked poultry (and meat) can lead to foodborne illness—which can be serious. According to Sims, "Symptoms of related foodborne illnesses can vary from person to person, but are usually associated with nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting (plus dehydration in many cases). Long-term illnesses can occur from bacterial infections, too."

"After your turkey is ready to be baked or fried, you should plan to cook it to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F—as measured with a food thermometer—to destroy any bacteria, which reduces the risk of foodborne illness," says Pfaeffle.

She says to check that poultry has reached 165°F in three parts: the breast's thickest part, the wing's innermost part, and the thigh's innermost part. "Even if the turkey has a pop-up temperature indicator, you should still use a food thermometer to check that the bird has reached at least 165°F in those three places," she adds. And if you're cooking a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, check for 165°F at the thickest part the breast.

See our complete guide to taking a turkey's temperature.

06 of 08

Do reheat leftovers and takeout properly to avoid dangerous bacteria.

While Thanksgiving dinner is the main event, the days (and leftovers) that follow are equally important when it comes to food safety. And that's still valid even if you order food to-go instead of cooking from scratch.

Now that you know to refrigerate your turkey and other perishable foods within 2 hours after serving, we also urge you to check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer with an appliance thermometer. The correct refrigerator and freezer temperatures are 40°F or below and 0°F or below.

"Store leftovers in small, shallow containers in the refrigerator only until the Monday after Thanksgiving Day, or in the freezer for later use," recommends Pfaeffle. (Shallow containers help cool leftovers more quickly than large ones). If you freeze leftover turkey, it'll keep up to 4 months.

And when reheating, take temperatures again, just as you did the first time. "You should be reheating your leftovers to an internal temperature of 165°F. Check the internal temperature of the food in several places with a food thermometer after allowing a resting time," she adds.

RELATED: Reheat Your Stuffing Holiday Without Drying It Out

07 of 08

Do practice safe social distancing guidelines.

"Since the virus that causes COVID-19, like many other germs, spreads mainly through person-to-person contact, your most important line of defense against germ transfer is to practice appropriate social distancing," Sims says. "Keeping six feet apart, having fewer than 10 people at your event, and attending gatherings outside are all ways to enjoy socializing in a safe manner." Think about sitting outside on a patio for gatherings, too (with heat lamps if it's chilly).

Another way to minimize contact is to think about serving. When hosting or attending events, Sims recommends avoiding buffet-style meals and opting for pre-prepped personal portions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Instead of sharing beverages, bring your own beverage to reduce 'buffet-drinking.' "While there is no current evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 by food, you should still always practice safe food–handling principles to reduce germ transfer and your risk of foodborne illness," she explains.

08 of 08

Do remember the USDA's four steps to food safety (especially when cooking with little ones).

The USDA recommends these four basic food safety steps:

  1. Clean: Clean hands, surfaces, and utensils with soap and warm water before cooking. Wash hands for 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat and poultry. After cleaning surfaces raw poultry has touched, apply a sanitizer.
  2. Separate: Use separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils to avoid cross-contamination between raw meat or poultry and foods that are ready to eat.
  3. Cook: Confirm foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature by using a food thermometer. Turkey should be cooked to 165°F, as measured in three places—the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing.
  4. Chill: Chill foods promptly if not consuming immediately after cooking. Don't leave food at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.

For advice about how to safely prepare turkey and other menu items this Thanksgiving, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety expert at ask.usda.gov from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday. For last-minute help on Thanksgiving Day, the hotline is open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET.

For the latest food safety tips, visit FoodSafety.gov or follow USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on Twitter @USDAFoodSafety or Facebook at Facebook.com/FoodSafety.gov.

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