Keep bad bacteria out of the kitchen this Thanksgiving

One of the best things about Thanksgiving—next to the opportunity to express gratitude and spend time with loved ones, of course—is that the primary way we celebrate is by eating delicious food. Whether you prep for days in advance or get up early for a day-of blitz, there are a lot of dishes being prepared—and a lot of opportunities for unwelcome guests to put a damper on the celebration.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control, millions of Americans contract a foodborne illness every year. Much of this food poisoning is caused by bacteria, particularly salmonellacampylobacter, and E. coli. Unfortunately for fans of turkey and stuffing, the amount of food cooked at the same time and in the same place at Thanksgiving can be a perfect staging ground for bacterial infection.  

Biology professor Susan Gardner, who specializes in microbiology, recalled that she would often get sick during Thanksgiving and Christmas growing up. Her mother said it was the flu, but it wasn’t until Gardner was older that she realized that the flu is a respiratory illness, and that the most likely culprit was food poisoning.  

“It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized I don’t think she ever washed her hands between touching the turkey and touching the stuff she gave us,” Gardner said.  

Food poisoning is rarely serious, but no one wants to spend their holiday sick in bed instead of enjoying the Thanksgiving spread. The good news? Most bacteria are easy to kill, and it’s not hard to stop its spread if you’re careful with your cooking utensils.  

Spend your Thanksgiving break resting and having fun, not dealing with a stomach bug. Follow these tips to keep yourself and your family healthy this holiday season.  

  • Wash your hands. After nearly two years of living through a pandemic, this is probably second nature to most people, but it’s still important to keep in mind. Wash your hands before cooking, after touching raw meat, and after you finish working with any food.  
  • Prepare your turkey away from the rest of the food. Don’t chop your vegetables or peel your sweet potatoes on the same cutting board or with the same utensils you used for the poultry. “You don’t ever want to cross-contaminate,” Gardner said.  
  • When you’re done with the turkey, thoroughly wash down the area with soap and water, then clean it off with a 10% bleach solution.  
  • Make sure your turkey is cooked thoroughly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and don’t cook the stuffing inside the turkey. “It’s easy to pack your stuffing in too tight so you can’t get the correct temperature in the middle of the stuffing. It’s always better to cook your stuffing separately and serve it separately, just in case you have a turkey cooking mishap,” Gardner said.  
  • Pay attention to produce recalls. “We had an E. coli outbreak a few years ago with spinach, and the bacteria was inside the spinach, not on the outside of the leaves,” Gardner said. “You can’t wash that off.” The CDC keeps a master list of all the current and past major outbreaks of illness tied to food products, including identifying the affected brands and areas. Before buying your ingredients, check the list to see if any outbreak or recall notices have been issued for your area.   
  • Package all leftovers in small flat containers and get them in the refrigerator right away. Cooling the food down as quickly as possible limits the opportunity for bacteria to grow, since many bacteria strains thrive at room temperature.  

Foodborne illness can easily be prevented by taking a few precautions during the cooking process and when storing the cooked food. Keep your kitchen free from unhelpful bacterial intruders, and have a safe, healthy, and relaxing Thanksgiving break.   

By Emily WebbNovember 24, 2021
Academics