Kristina E. Beaugh, MPH, Food Safety Education Staff, Food Safety and Inspection
Throughout the year, the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline answers questions about food safety from the public. We’re open Thanksgiving Day from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET, and it is our busiest day of year. Cooking a turkey properly can make even the most confident chef just a little nervous, not to mention the millions of first-time cooks attempting the turkey trot to the Thanksgiving table. Common calls to the Hotline on Thanksgiving Day include How long should I cook my turkey? or How many days will my macaroni and cheese last?.
Every year, the Hotline gets a few extraordinary calls that we just have to write down. Here are the top five turkey fails we’ve heard from callers over the years. Would you eat these turkeys? We hope not.
1. Lifeguard Not on Duty
Never leave your turkey by the pool unsupervised. A couple found a wild turkey, drowned from the night before, in their swimming pool. The caller asked if it could be served to their guests for dinner. Because this bird was not dressed properly and immediately upon its death, it was not safe to serve. Ask Karen has more information on handling wild game safely.
2. Tumble Dry Low
Make sure you have the tools before you commit. One clever caller did not have a large enough container to brine his large turkey. So of course, the washing machine is next best thing, right? Wrong. After loading the machine with the turkey, ice and brine solution, our cook forgot the bird was in there. Later the caller’s roommate put in a load of laundry, with detergent and bleach, on top of the turkey. Brining should always be done in the refrigerator in a food-grade plastic container. In addition, the bleach and the detergent would not be safe to consume.
3. What’s that Fowl Smell?
It’s true that cold water can be used to defrost frozen poultry, but one should really consider where that water comes from. One Thanksgiving host had a large frozen turkey and a small amount of time, so he put the turkey in the toilet and continuously flushed to allow water to run all over it. Needless to say, there could have been all kinds of bacterium on this turkey and it had to be condemned. There are three safe ways to thaw a turkey, none of which involves a toilet.
4. In by 9, Out by 5
One “resourceful” Thanksgiving hostess forgot to buy a cooking bag for her turkey. Instead she slipped the bird into a dry cleaning bag. During cooking, the bag melted around the turkey and produced a strong, chemical smell. Don’t improvise with products not intended for cooking in your kitchen, or your food can become chemically contaminated.
5. You Are Now Free to Move About the Country
Ever find a great clothing sale when you’re on vacation so you take some things back home with you? Yeah, you probably shouldn’t do that with poultry. A lady found a turkey on sale while visiting family and decided to pack it into her carry-on for the flight home. To make matters worse, her flight was delayed overnight so she kept the turkey on ice in the hotel bathtub. By the time she reached home the turkey had been in the danger zone (40 – 140 °F) too long and was not safe to eat.
For a fail-free Thanksgiving, follow the guidelines on the USDA “Let’s Talk Turkey” infographic below. And if you have a question or a funny turkey story of your own, call the USDA Food Safety Hotline at 1-888-674-6854. The Hotline will be open from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET on Thanksgiving Day. You can also visit FoodSafety.gov/turkey or follow us on Twitter at @USDAFoodSafety.