Give thanks, not foodborne illnesses this Thanksgiving: U of G Food Scientist

Dr Keith Warriner

Thanksgiving is a time to get together with family and friends for a feast, but the day can also serve up a dose of foodborne illness if precautions aren’t taken, says food scientist from the University of Guelph.

Dr. Keith Warriner is a professor in the Department of Food Science at the Ontario Agricultural College and studies the prevention of foodborne illness. It examines ways to decontaminate poultry and validate cooking instructions for commercial poultry products.

Raw turkey can be contaminated with various microbes, including Salmonella, Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringen and Staphylococcus aureus, all of which can cause mild to severe gastrointestinal illness. The latter can produce a toxin that cannot be destroyed by cooking.

Warriner has several tips for every step of preparing a turkey, from proper storage and cooking to safely preparing leftovers.

Is it safer to buy fresh or frozen?

If you choose to buy a turkey fresh, plan to buy the bird no more than three days before your meal and store it at the bottom of the refrigerator, Warriner says.

“Don’t put the turkey on the top shelf because the juices containing harmful microbes can drip onto the food below,” he explains.

Buying frozen turkey is common, but remember to immediately put it back in a freezer when you get home. In the car, it can partially defrost, promoting microbial growth, he says.

What’s the best way to defrost a turkey?

“Frozen turkey takes time to thaw, and care must be taken to ensure that the bird’s temperature does not fall into the danger zone of 4 to 63 degrees Celsius (39.2 to 145.4 Fahrenheit),” says Warriner.

He cautions against thawing turkey on the counter or in the refrigerator, as it does not thaw completely and can lead to cases of Salmonella, Campylobacter and S. aureus.

“The safest method of thawing is to place the frozen turkey, still in its wrapper, in a sink of cold water,” says Warriner. “The water helps thaw the turkey safely and quickly, while keeping the surface cold enough to prevent the growth of germs.”

Tips for preparing a turkey for cooking?

Warriner cautions against washing part of the thawed turkey in the sink, tempting as that is. Instead, the turkey should be unwrapped in an area that is nearby and easy to sanitize.

Stuffing should also be avoided because it will insulate the turkey and prevent hot air from cooking the inside of the turkey, Wariner says. Instead, the stuffing should be cooked on the stove or baked in the oven.

All prep tools should be washed with a chlorine solution – one capful of bleach to five liters of water will suffice – to kill all pathogens.

What’s the best way to cook a turkey?

Turkeys take a long time to cook and must reach a temperature of 73 degrees Celsius (163.4 Fahrenheit) to be fully cooked (15 minutes of cooking time per pound).

Warriner encourages the use of a meat thermometer inserted into the coldest part of the poultry (i.e. the middle of the thigh), to prevent overcooking “whether you are using an oven, a deep fryer air, a roasting pan or even a fryer”.

What’s the safest way to carve a turkey?

Turkeys should rest for 15 to 30 minutes before carving, but no more than two hours at room temperature because Clostridium perfringens can proliferate and cause food poisoning, Warriner says.

Always use a different cutting board than the one used for raw turkey, he adds. Once the turkey has been carved, it should be kept warm in an oven during meals or stored in the refrigerator.

What to do with leftovers?

“While you may prefer to sleep in the big dinner, it’s important to put leftovers in the refrigerator to prevent the growth of pathogens,” Warriner says.

He advises eating leftovers within five days, although they can be frozen for up to three months in slices.

Warriner is available for interviews.


Dr Keith Warriner
[email protected]

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