THE BLOG
11/13/2014 06:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Thanksgiving Food Safety: What to Do to Survive the Holiday

Thanksgiving food safety may not be the sexiest topic around, but it could be a lifesaver.

Since Thanksgiving is almost here, it's never too soon to plan for the big feast, and the more preparation you do ahead of time the lower the risk you put your guests for getting a food-borne illness. The last thing you want to do is make your Thanksgiving one of the most memorable for your friends and relatives lives because they got sick. If a person has a weakened immune system, that person can even be hospitalized or die from food-borne illnesses.

Based on calls to the food safety hotline of the US Department of Agriculture, most people start thinking about Thanksgiving a week before, says Tina Hanes, a food safety specialist. They have run into a lot of snags and have a lot of questions that don't occur to them any other time of the year, she says.

"Thanksgiving is such a big meal for a large crowd and they don't do this every day," Hanes says. "It's a big party, and you have to plan ahead and start thinking about it and doing as much as you can beforehand so you don't forget about food safety. When you get busy on Thanksgivingor the day before, everybody wants the meal done on time. That's the one thing that stresses them out of how to get all the food ready and on the table at the same time. They make skip or miss food safety or not think about food safety because they're so busy. That's our job. That's why we're here. We like to help people with their holiday food plans."

The USDA< will open its food hotline at 8:00 a.m. Eastern on Thanksgiving Day and operate it until 2:00 p.m. -- if it's busy, they encourage you to wait and all calls will be answered in time.

What are the biggest questions and concerns people have when it comes to Thanksgiving?

"When people are buying a turkey, we get questions about how much to buy and should I buy a fresh or frozen turkey," Hanes says. "The main issue we deal with a lot on Thanksgiving is the panic food safety questions. Something went wrong or they perceived something went wrong and they need help to make sure that their guests don't get sick."

One concern people have is they haven't thawed their frozen turkey in time and don't know what to do.

"A lot of people don't know that you can cook a turkey from the frozen state, and it's perfectly safe to do that if that happens," Hanes says. "It's just going to take 50 percent longer than the recommended time for a fully thawed turkey."

Another concern is they may cook the turkey the night before and plan to refrigerate it and heat it on Thanksgiving to save time because the oven's being used for side dishes, Hanes says. Sometimes, the turkey is left out overnight rather than put in the refrigerator.

"They got tired and forgot about it and woke up the next day and the turkey was sitting there on top of the oven," Hanes says. "In that situation, we can't save it. It's not safe unfortunately. That's why it's important to plan ahead so you don't get so tired and overwhelmed that you forget about food safety."

That's why people should start planning the Thanksgiving dinner now. That doesn't mean you have to start cooking now but there are plenty of people who do that to save time, she says. She says her mom prepares the side dishes for Thanksgiving like sweet potatoes with pineapple and freezes it and reheats it on Thanksgiving Day.

"She even freezes homemade rolls, and they come out great," Hanes says. "We are saving time by doing what we can ahead of time. Pumpkin pies can be made ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen and then reheated or cooked on Thanksgiving Day. Think about the things you can do ahead of time."

Hanes says she hosts Thanksgiving dinner and doesn't have to do most of the cooking but rather leaves that to others. Her brother even handles the turkey, she says.

"I supply the house and the utensils and the table. What I'm going to do is the weekend before Thanksgiving is do a little cooking but get everything together. I get my table set up because we have 13 people coming and get the card table out of the basement and get that ready," Hanes says.

Hanes says people can iron the table cloth and check their utensils and make sure you have everything for the beverage station. Do all of those things that don't require putting something in your refrigerator or cooking as far in advanced as you can, and that will save you a lot of time, she says.

"I even set the table the night before so that when the guests come all I am doing is setting up the buffet and the beverage station," Hanes says.

For all the preparation that people do, they shouldn't over prepare when it comes to the turkey. Grocery stories start selling fresh turkeys a week before Thanksgiving, but a fresh turkey shouldn't be picked up sooner than the Tuesday before, Hanes says. It can only stay safe in a home refrigerator for two days.

"If you buy it and pick it up before Tuesday and put it in your refrigerator, you may end up having a spoiled turkey on Thanksgiving," Hanes says.

The reason the stores can keep turkeys in their cases longer is because they tend to be colder than a home refrigerator. A home refrigerator may be 40 degrees and retail food store refrigerator case is about 26 degrees, Hanes says.

"We have had calls on Thanksgiving Day where they open up that turkey and it's spoiled and that it smells like rotten eggs," Hanes says.

As for other tips, you don't have to wash or rinse the turkey. Cooking is what destroys the bacteria while washing it can spread bacteria to your sink, countertop and you, Hanes says. People think washing is necessary because their mother or grandmother did it, she says.

If you have a frozen turkey more than a year old, Hanes says it's still good to use if there was no power failure. She advises against it because it may have odors from the freezer and not taste as good as one that's not as old. It's best to save it for another day when you don't have so many guests, she says.

"I wouldn't want to put my reputation on the line with a five-year-old turkey," she says.

As for cooking the turkey, Hanes says it needs to reach at least 165 degrees for it to be safe. That goes for the stuffing too whether you cook it inside the turkey or put it in a casserole dish. If you don't have a food thermometer, Hanes suggest buying one for the Thanksgiving Day meal.

"One of the most popular questions we get the day after Thanksgiving is I don't know if my turkey was done because when they cut into it, it was pink at the bone and am I going to make my guests sick," Hanes says. "When we talk to them and learn they took the temperature with a thermometer, we can assure them that at 165 it could look pink at the bone but it's safe."

But Thanksgiving food safety doesn't end with serving and preparing the meal, especially on a day when people eat most of the day or leftovers later in the day.

People tend to get busy and forget that the turkey is still on the table, Hanes says. The USDA recommendation is you shouldn't leave out perishable food out at room temperature for more than two hours unless it is a on a cold source or heat source. If you're serving turkey on a platter, you have to keep an eye on the time and make sure it's not out more than two hours, Hanes says.

"If it does stay out too long, that will allow bacteria to grow and that can make someone sick," Hanes says.

The contact the USDA hotline, call 888-674-6854 or to get more information about turkey safety go to this website.

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