Healthy Living in the North

A splendid – and safe! – holiday meal: Tips for safe turkey cooking

Cooked turkey

When it comes to turkey and meat, keep in mind two safety tips – temperature control and eliminating cross-contamination – and you and your guests will enjoy a splendid and safe meal this holiday season!

‘Tis the holiday season – such an exciting time! Many of us will have family and friends over, often to dine. But if someone gets sick from a meal that we made, well now that holiday spirit just won’t be the same, will it?

That’s why I want to share safe food handling tips so that you and your good company can continue having a happy holiday. Since winter holidays mean turkey dinner for many, I’ll focus on that.

A 2006 study in Quebec found that a third of raw turkeys tested were positive for Salmonella and Campylobacter. Salmonella and Campylobacter are bacteria that are commonly found on poultry that can make you sick if the food is not prepared properly. Consuming undercooked turkey is of particular concern for children, the elderly, pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals as they are more likely to experience illness and experience it in more severe forms.

So it’s really the luck of the draw when you purchase that raw turkey. You cannot tell if it has bacteria like Salmonella or Campylobacter. Rather than play against the odds, it’s important to play it safe by preparing it safely! The following food safe practices boil down to two subjects: temperature control and eliminating cross-contamination.

If you purchase a fresh turkey, make sure it is kept in the fridge at 4 degrees Celsius or colder and cooked within 2-3 days after purchasing. If the turkey is frozen, it can be thawed safely in the refrigerator or under cold running water. In both instances, it’s good practice to keep the turkey stored in its original plastic wrapper to prevent any potential cross-contamination. Thawing time is approximately an hour per pound so plan accordingly.

Washing hands, utensils and cutting boards before and after contact with the turkey (or any other raw meat for that matter!) are also key to preventing contamination of the bird and other foods. At the same time, recent research says “don’t wash the bird” as splash from the washing process can travel 3 feet or more and contaminate the counter, utensils and any food dishes within that zone. You don’t want to have raw turkey juices on the salad fixings! We want to deliver the turkey into the oven with as little cross contamination, splashing and dripping as possible.

How can you tell your food is done? Visual cues are unreliable. The only sure way to check is to use a probe thermometer and check the internal temperature of the turkey. Your entire turkey and the stuffing must reach at least 75 degrees Celsius (167 F) to be safe to eat. If your turkey is done but your stuffing isn’t, remove the stuffing and cook it separately.

The goal of these tips is to leave as few opportunities as possible for the bacteria to grow and to minimize cross-contamination to other foods. In that way, you and your merry company can enjoy both a splendid meal and holiday!

Happy holidays!

Alicia Parayno

About Alicia Parayno

Alicia is an Environmental Health Officer at the Vanderhoof Public Health Unit. Born and raised in Metro Vancouver, Alicia wanted to experience more of B.C. so, after finishing her education at BCIT, she completed a practicum in Prince George in 2014. Since she enjoyed her northern B.C. experience, she was ready to jump at the opportunity to return to Northern Health the following summer. During her spare time, Alicia likes to walk, hike, cycle, occasionally run and ski when she can. She also enjoys baking, attempting to crochet and having teatime – more than once a day. (Alicia no longer works at Northern Health, we wish her all the best.)