This Thanksgiving, Avoid a Horror Story

Follow these steps to avoid your happy holiday turning into a horror story.

November 21, 2012, 8:06 AM

Nov. 21, 2012— -- Brent Taylor approaches Thanksgiving dinner like an undercover spy. He'll casually query his hosts – How was the turkey cooked? What about the stuffing? Any strange ingredients? He's not on the hunt for tasty secrets, but rather for reassurance that the turkey and trimmings won't turn on him.

That's what happened six years ago. "Three of us got sick eating that dinner," said Taylor.

Taylor, who lives in Richmond, Va., still cringes at the memory of that Thanksgiving dinner six years ago at a friend's house. "Everything looked great and tasted great and it was good company," he said. But by the next morning, he felt seriously ill, with cramps, a fever, and he says delicately, "a lot of trips to the bathroom." Taylor blames what turned into a two-day bout of food poisoning on the stuffing; only those who ate it got sick.

There are no precise numbers on how many people get ill just from Thanksgiving dinner, but the U. S. Department of Agriculture points out that 1 in 6 Americans, 48 million of us, will suffer from a food-borne illness in 2012, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. They warn that Thanksgiving can be tricky; cooks are preparing a meal they don't usually cook and for large numbers of people. To stay safe, "there are four simple steps you can follow," Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA Under Secretary for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, told ABC News.

First is to clean- wash hands, utensils and food surfaces frequently. Second is to separate--keep raw meat and poultry away from anything you're not going to cook, such as salad or bread. Third, make sure you cook your turkey to the proper temperature, and finally get those leftovers in the refrigerator within two hours of dinner.

Mishandling your turkey, or stuffing or even your pumpkin pie can put you at risk of salmonella bacteria which is found in meat, poultry and eggs, or campylobacter bacteria which is found in the gastrointestinal tract of animals. Both can be killed by heat and thorough cooking.

"These are really serious illnesses," said Hagen, "that's why we're talking about this during a holiday that is so focused on the food and family."

Food safety experts advise against washing off your turkey; that can simply spread bacteria around the kitchen. And, they say, it's critical not to thaw the bird on the counter. "The surface of the turkey may have bacteria on it," said Diane Van, Manager of USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline. "If it's sitting in a warm environment, the bacteria can multiply to quite high levels."

The best way to defrost the turkey is in the refrigerator. "You have to plan ahead," said Van, "it takes about a day for every four or five pounds of turkey." If you don't have the time for that, you can also defrost in cold water. That requires submerging the turkey in cold water, and changing that water every 30 minutes. To thaw the turkey, it will take about half an hour for every pound of meat.

Nicole Johnson helps staff the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, which answers calls from frantic cooks around this time of year. She says the number one question they get is from folks wanting to know how to thaw their turkey. Some have gotten quite inventive. Johnson says "we heard from the gentleman who was short on time and wrapped it in an electric blanket."

Johnson and the USDA also point out it's critical to cook the turkey to the correct temperature, at least 165 degrees as measured by a meat thermometer in three separate places, in the thigh, in the wing joint and in the thickest part of the breast. Johnson, who has a degree in nutrition dietetics and has been working the Butterball hotline for over a decade, says if you've stuffed the turkey, you also need to put the thermometer into the center of the stuffing and make sure the temperature there reaches 165 degrees.

It turns out stuffing is a touchy subject. There are those insist on stuffing their bird, and those who make the stuffing separately. From a safety standpoint, stuffing your turkey could be hazardous to your health if it's not done carefully.

"There are bacteria in the cavity of turkey," said the USDA's Van, "Stuffing is a rich medium for bacteria to grow." Van says if you do stuff your turkey, put the stuffing in right before you cook it, and pack it in loosely.

Dessert should be handled properly too. Van recommends thoroughly cooking that pumpkin pie, and storing it in the refrigerator until you're ready to indulge.

As for Thanksgiving leftovers, they should be eaten within three or four days.

Most of us will sit down happily and safely to our Thanksgiving dinner, but Taylor says he's still leery. "I don't have the taste for Thanksgiving dinner… it doesn't excite me as it used to," he said. It won't keep him from the table this year, but he'll be asking all his questions before he takes that first bite.