Over 10% of holiday turkeys served up this Thanksgiving will come with more than stuffing and mashed potatoes. Government testing suggests that Salmonella bacteria may be lurking in your bird.
For the first time this year, the United States Department of Agriculture has added turkeys to the list of poultry products tested for the food-poisoning bacteria Salmonella.
Salmonella contaminated food is responsible for 1.3 million illnesses, 15,000 hospitalizations, and over 500 deaths yearly throughout the United States.
According to scientist Matt Jackson, professor of immunology and microbiology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, contaminated turkeys are a health concern. "These bacteria can cause diarrheal illnesses which are typically not life-threatening, but can cause a few days of great discomfort," says Jackson.
Over 1 in 10 Turkeys Contaminated
The USDA had previously received harsh criticisms from the consumer advocacy group "Center for Science in the Public Interest" for not testing turkey slaughterhouses as stringently as other poultry and meats.
The 2001 tests found that a striking 13% of 2200 turkey samples from some 50 plants across the country were contaminated with Salmonella. While many plants did well, it was found that 15% of all plants tested had 1 in 5 birds contaminated with the hazardous bacteria. At the worst plant, Salmonella was found in half of all turkeys tested."
"The large number of plants that are producing cleaner turkeys is a great sign," says CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "But the fact that some plants are producing large numbers of contaminated turkeys is troubling," remarked DeWaal in her fifth annual "turkey talk" at yesterday's National Press Club meeting.
The CSPI hopes to make the test results more accessible to consumers, petitioning the government to make all the USDA's Salmonella tests available via the Internet.
Prevention Continues in the Kitchen
Fortunately, nutrition experts say prevention is relatively simple. Measures such as making sure your meat is cooked thoroughly can help kill off the harmful bacteria. They say that just knowing the basics of thawing, handling, and roasting your turkey can guarantee your holiday feast won't turn into a fiasco.
To be safe, Jackson stresses that all turkey should be treated as if it were infected. Initially, he recommends washing the surface of the bird to remove external bacteria. Also important for avoiding contamination is cleaning all utensils and surfaces touched by raw meats with hot, soapy water.
"In the kitchen-especially around the holidays-good hygiene such as hand washing should be a family affair." Says Suzanne Henson, coordinator of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's EatRight Program.
Henson points out a common mistake made by meal preparers is storing leftovers in deep containers. "Leftovers should be stored ASAP in a shallow container so they can cool more quickly and evenly," Henson remarks. "This is especially important with foods that contain eggs."
Follow these simple suggestions to prevent you and your guests from getting sick, and you'll be sure to have a safe and healthy holiday season.
Holiday Food Safety Tips:
* Thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave-never on the counter. * Pay special attention to keeping utensils and cutting boards clean. * Cook stuffing it is in a casserole, not inside the bird. * Use a meat thermometer. The turkey is ready to serve when a thermometer inserted in the meaty part of the thigh (avoid touching the bone) reads 180 degrees F. * Use the CSPI's simple "2 hours, 2 inches, 4 days" formula to prevent food-related illness: *Move the meal from the oven to the feast to the refrigerator in 2 hours or less *Store refrigerated food at a shallow depth-about 2 inches-to speed chilling *Eat refrigerated leftovers in 4 days or less, and freeze those that will be kept longer
For additional food safety information, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-800-535-4555.