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In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, millions of kitchens across America will become a hive of activity in preparation for this food centric holiday.

The centerpiece of this late November feast is the turkey.  According to the National Turkey Federation, about 51.6 million turkeys were eaten on Thanksgiving Day last year, compared to 22 million eaten at Christmas and 19 million turkeys eaten on Easter Sunday.

Since the turkey is a uniquely North American, it gained in popularity as the Thanksgiving meal of choice for Americans after President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

While turkey is a traditional holiday fare, many cooks seldom prepare 20 pounds of meat at a time and may overlook safety procedures unique to preparing a poultry of this size. 

Keeping it healthy

Last year, one person died and 164 were sickened by an outbreak of salmonella linked to raw turkey, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To avoid being a victim of food poisoning due to salmonella and other foodborne germs, here are some tips to make your Thanksgiving meal both delicious and safe for the guests gathered around your table.

Handling poultry incorrectly and undercooking it are the most common problems that lead to foodborne disease outbreaks linked to poultry. Barb Ingham, Extension Food Science Specialist, Department of Food Science of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Division of Extension, says special care is needed for preparing either a frozen or fresh turkey.

Ingham says cooks need to allow for enough time to thaw a frozen bird properly (in the refrigerator) in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

"A 20 pound bird may a good five days to thaw in the refrigerator, so plan for that time," she said. "A fresh turkey can be purchased a day or two ahead and then let it sit in the refrigerator until it's ready to go."

Ingham says another often overlooked source of bacteria is the stuffing inside the bird.

"If you do prepare on stuffing a turkey,make sure that you stuff it just before it goes into the oven," Ingham said. ""Don't stuff the turkey and put it into the refrigerator overnight as stuffing is a great place for bacteria to grow."

Cooking stuffing separately from the turkey in a casserole dish also makes it easy to be sure it is thoroughly cooked.

Whether cooked inside or outside of the turkey, use a food thermometer to make sure the stuffing’s center reaches 165°F. Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165°F and may then cause food poisoning. If you cook stuffing in the turkey, wait 20 minutes after taking the bird out of the oven before removing the stuffing; this allows it to cook a little more.

To make sure the turkey is ready, Ingham encourages cooks to use a food thermometer on three locations of the turkey: the breast, thigh and where the wing joins the body.

Techniques on how to cook a turkey are often many and at times confusing, said Jeannie Nichols of Michigan State University Extension.

"Each year new recipes and techniques are created based on trendy regional ingredients and creative cooking methods," Nichols said. "Some are good, some are bad and some are downright unsafe."

Nichols said the slow-cooking overnight method is dangerous and involves cooking the turkey at 190 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit overnight for 12 to 13 hours.

"A low oven temperature means the turkey will take longer to heat, increasing the risk of harmful bacteria growth and the production of poisons that may not be destroyed with further cooking," she said.

There are also risks involved with the high-heat roasting technique as well, Ingham said.

"I've heard people turning the oven on at 450 degrees (and baking the turkey for awhile) then turning off the oven and letting it coast through until morning," she said. "It may end up cooking, but it's hard to know and really isn't a safe thing to do."

She recommends setting the oven temperature to at least 325 degrees.

"You can turn (the temperature) up higher at the end of cooking time, or starting high and then turning it down," she said. "A temperature of 325 degrees ensures that bacteria doesn't have a chance to grow and make your guests sick."

What about leftovers?

Many folks look forward to the plethora of leftovers following the big Thanksgiving meal. Who doesn't love turkey ala king, turkey sandwiches or turkey casserole with a side of mashed potatoes, cranberries and leftover stuffing?

For those counting on those leftovers for meals on Black Friday and throughout the weekend, Ingham says remnants of the big meal also need proper handling to remain safe for consumption.

Cooked foods left at room temperature are the perfect environment to grow the Clostridium perfringens bacteria, the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning. Major symptoms are vomiting and abdominal cramps within 6 to 24 hours after eating, according to the CDC.

"(Following the main meal) you have just a couple of hours to get those leftovers into shallow storage containers and into the refrigerator," Ingham said.

Slice or divide big cuts of meat, such as a roast turkey, into small quantities for refrigeration so they will cool quickly.

While eating cold turkey for sandwiches is fine, Ingham recommends reheating other leftovers such as stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy to 165 degrees.

Don't forget the pies

While most people link food poisoning to undercooked meats, Ingham says its important to remember that certain desserts should be refrigerated as well, including pies.

"Homemade pumpkin or cream-style pies should be refrigerated," she said. "It can be confusing especially when people see apple and pumpkin pies on the grocery store shelves that are not refrigerated. Those items that are commercially produced are prepared using some extra food safety steps that would be hard for us to take at home.

"So, if you make a traditional pumpkin pie made with some kind of sweetened condensed or evaporated milk and eggs, it's best to keep that pie in the refrigerator," she said.

To assist cooks in making a safe, well-baked turkey, the Butterball Turkey hotline is available via phone, website, text, and even Alexa. To access information, reach out to https://www.butterball.com/about-us/turkey-talk-line or call 1-800-BUTTERBALL (1-800-288-8372).

For more information on safe turkey handling, look to the USDA site at https://bit.ly/335eNxQ.

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