Don’t Let Foodborne Illnesses Take the Joy Out of Your Jingle

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The 2023 holiday season is here, and Clemson University food systems and safety agents have some tips to help keep people safe from foodborne illnesses.

Turkey is a popular entrée served for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but it also is a source of possible food poisoning, such as salmonella infections. To help keep people safe, Samantha Houston, Clemson Cooperative Extension Service food systems and safety agent in Lexington, South Carolina, has a few bits of advice.

“There are at least three tasty options for cooking a holiday turkey,” Houston said. “These are roasting, smoking and frying. It is important to make sure a turkey is fully cooked before it is eaten to avoid salmonella or other bacteria-related infections.”

Bacteria can survive on foods that are not properly cooked. The color of meat and poultry does not show if it is safely cooked. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods and cook all poultry to at least 165 F.

Properly cook stuffed turkeys

Cooking a stuffed turkey at home can be riskier than cooking one that is not stuffed. If stuffing is not thoroughly cooked, foodborne illnesses could occur. To properly stuff and cook a turkey, Houston says to:

Safely prepare the stuffing. Steps include:

  • Moist and dry ingredients can be prepared separately ahead of time
  • Store moist ingredients such as butter or margarine, cooked celery, onions, broth, etc., in the refrigerator.
  • Both moist and dry ingredients should be combined immediately before the bird is stuffed, never in advance, even if refrigerated.
  • Use only cooked ingredients, such as sautéed vegetables, cooked meats and seafood (oysters).

If eggs are used, Houston says it’s best to use pasteurized liquid eggs and not raw shell eggs. Pasteurized eggs have undergone heat treatment to kill bacteria, particularly salmonella. Raw eggs have a higher chance of having bacteria. This is “really for added insurance because heating the whole thing to 165 degrees will kill the bacteria,” she said.

Moist stuffing is better than dry stuffing as heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment. Tips for stuffing turkey are:

  • Properly stuff the bird: Loosely stuff both the neck and body cavities. Use about three-quarters cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. For example, no more than 15 cups of stuffing should be used in a 20-pound bird.
  • Cook at the proper temperature: Put the stuffed turkey immediately in a preheated oven set no lower than 325 F. Cooking overnight at a low setting (200 F to 250 F) is unsafe as bacteria can easily grow under these conditions.
  • Use a food thermometer: Always check the stuffing temperature to ensure it is done. Even if the turkey has reached 165 F in the innermost part of the thigh, the stuffing might not have reached 165 F in the center. All parts of the stuffing must be cooked to 165 F for safety.

If purchasing pre-stuffed whole poultry is part of the plan, Houston said to remember pre-stuffed birds are highly perishable and should only be purchased if the package includes a United States Department of Agriculture or state mark of inspection. This means the turkey has been processed under controlled conditions. Never thaw a pre-stuffed frozen bird before cooking. Always cook from the frozen state. Follow package instructions to ensure a safely cooked product.