Forget how Grandma did it: USDA says don’t wash the turkey

WASHINGTON — To help families avoid falling ill this Thanksgiving, food safety experts are working to dispel commonly held myths.

The most common holiday food safety mistake? Washing the bird, said Janell Goodwin, a technical information specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“You’re actually spreading bacteria up to five feet away,” Goodwin said of the splash effect that can occur when you wash a turkey. “Items that you have sitting over on the other counter can be cross contaminated with these raw juices.”

Proper cooking kills bacteria

Turkeys should be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The juices running clear is not an indication of a safe temperature. Instead, a thermometer should be used to check temperature in three places: “The thickest part of the breast and the innermost parts of the wing and thigh,” Goodwin said.

There are no shortcuts for safe defrosting

Defrosting a frozen turkey in the refrigerator will take about 24 hours for every five pounds. If you need a bird defrosted right away, Goodwin said, completely submerge it in cold water and change that water frequently.

“Change the water every 30 minutes,” Goodwin said. “Be mindful you need to cook the bird immediately after it’s thawed.”

Don’t rush the stuffing

Food safety experts would prefer it if you didn’t put stuffing inside your Thanksgiving turkey. But if you do, Goodwin said, wait until the last minute to put it inside the bird, and pack it loosely. Just like the turkey, stuffing should be heated to 165 degrees.

Don’t leave leftovers out too long

If food isn’t cooler than 40 degrees or warmer than 140 degrees, Goodwin said, it can only be left out safely for two hours.

Get help if you need it

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is staffed by live experts Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. They are available online and over the phone, even on Thanksgiving Day.

“You’re getting that one-on-one food safety expertise. It’s a really great resource,” Goodwin said.

The hotline for calls is 1-888-674-6854. Online questions can be answered via live chat.

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Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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