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Your Thanksgiving Dinner Food Safety Checklist

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photo via Flickr//Tim Sackton
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  Thanksgiving chefs and grillmasters are being reminded to follow some basic, but effective steps to avoid food-borne illnesses. Many of the tips are from the Florida Department of Agriculture.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year about 48 million Americans, roughly one in six, gets a food-borne illness. One hundred-28 thousand are hospitalized with about 3,000 deaths. The most common illnesses are caused by norovirus and the Salmonella bacteria.

Liz Compton at the Agricultural Department says food safety for the most part involves fairly simple measures that can go a long way toward keeping the holiday a pleasant one. Rather than one cardinal rule, there are three. 

“Don’t cross-contaminate when you’re preparing; cook your food thoroughly, and be careful about leaving it out,” said Compton.

To avoid cross-contamination while preparing the feast, be sure to wash hands often and thoroughly after contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. That also goes for cutting boards, plates, platters and utensils.

Compton says it’s best to defrost the turkey in the refrigerator at a rate of one day per five pounds of weight. Then cook the bird to an internal temperature of 165 degrees; the cooking times will vary with the turkey’s size. Don’t open the oven door repeatedly, as that can interrupt the cooking process, and be sure use a meat thermometer.

“It’s just a few bucks,” Compton says. “Sometimes when people don’t have a meat thermometer, they undercook the meat and that’s dangerous.”

Another tradition to avoid is cooking the stuffing inside the turkey. Instead, cook it in a separate pan.

Fried turkey has gained rapid popularity over the past few years. Brad Baker is Emergency Services Coordinator for Santa Rosa County. Rule number one in frying the bird, he says, is to take it outside.

“Following that, would be make sure the turkey is fully thawed out,” says Baker. “One of the biggest issues you have is putting a partially frozen turkey or a still-wet turkey into hot grease. And water and grease do not mix.”

When frying a turkey, keep at least two feet between a liquid propane tank and fryer burner, and position it where the wind blows the heat away from the fuel. A good plan, says Baker, is to keep the fryer about 20 feet from any structures.

When it’s time to eat, many Thanksgiving meals are served buffet-style. Liz Compton at the Department of Agriculture says the best rule of thumb when putting out the spread is to keep hot foods hot, and cold foods cold. Afterward, store the leftovers in shallow dishes to allow for rapid cooling in the fridge.

Information on food safety is available online at a number of websites, including the Florida and U.S. Departments of Health; and at eatturkey.com