‘Don’t Wash Your Turkey’ & 4 Other USDA Tips To Avoid Making Your Family Sick This Thanksgiving

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If you’re preparing a holiday feast for this Thursday, maybe you’ve already began some preparatory work beyond starting to defrost the turkey. If you want to keep your guests more safe from foodborne illnesses, here are some useful tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on everything from cleaning the exterior of your turkey to keeping your dinner safe from wild animals. If you don’t want to keep your guests safe, they can’t help you.

Don’t wash your turkey before serving. Most Americans believe that they should wash their poultry before cooking, and this is not true.

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While some water-aided defrosting while the turkey is still wrapped up may be helpful, experts have found that washing your poultry doesn’t help very much, and just means spraying bacteria around the sink. With a whole raw turkey, that means Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Defrost safely. The USDA condones three defrosting methods for turkey: in the refrigerator, in a bucket of cold water, and in the microwave. The refrigerator method is the safest, but also the slowest.

Double-check with a meat thermometer. Yes, the pop-up timer is a classic method, but also poke the bird in its three thickest areas with a meat thermometer. That’s the inner thigh, the wing, and the thickest part of the breast. If those are all over 165 degrees, it’s time to carve.

Don’t leave food outside. When the outdoors is colder than your refrigerator and projected to stay that way, doesn’t it make sense to stash some leftovers or other foods you plan to refrigerate or freeze outside? No, it turns out: plastic containers left out in the sun can heat up in a way that they don’t when kept in a dark fridge or cooler.

There’s also the added risk that wild animals could snack on your leftovers, contaminating them or just stealing them all. The USDA recommends coolers with ice instead of stashing food outside.

Leftovers are good up to four days. Carved turkey is freezable, and can last up to four months in those conditions if frozen right away.

The USDA also has a meat and poultry hotline operating on Thanksgiving, a public-sector competitor to the Butterball hotline. You can reach it at 1-888-674-6854.

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