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Give thanks, not food poisoning this Thanksgiving.
As one of Canada's most beloved holidays is just around the corner, you might be thinking about the food you have to buy or who's going to carve the turkey. However, according to a food scientist, it's vitally important to keep family and friends safe from food poisoning as they gather around the dinner table.
"If precautions aren't taken, Thanksgiving can definitely cause illness, and it can affect a lot of people," Dr. Keith Warriner, a professor of Food Science at the University of Guelph tells Yahoo Canada. "There was an incident in the U.S. that killed three people and affected many more due to contaminated turkey, which we want to avoid...it's definitely a high risk dinner so we have to be cautious."
Warriner, who specializes in food-borne illness prevention, studies preparation and cooking instructions for commercial poultry products — which is especially relevant at this time of year.
Read on to learn the expert's top tips for each stage of Thanksgiving, from preparing and cooking a turkey to safely storing leftovers.
1. Plan your meal and cooking equipment
Before any cooking begins, Warriner recommends planning what you're going to eat and making sure that you have the proper equipment.
"This is probably one of the largest meals a family will cook all year, and many people don't have the proper cooking materials or space for everything, which is something that can lead to contamination or illness," he explains.
Warriner urges people to make sure they have enough counter space, knives and cutting boards in order to prevent cross contamination during the preparation stage.
"Sometimes people will use the same cutting board or knife that was used to handle raw turkey, and we want to avoid that as it can cause sickness," Warriner says. "The same goes for preparing potatoes or vegetables on the same surfaces that the turkey was placed...make sure it's either sanitized or a different surface when changing courses."
"Most people put frozen turkeys in the fridge to defrost, but this isn't the best way."Dr. Keith Warriner
2. Defrost your turkey — the right way
Warriner explains that the best way to prevent foodborne illness is to properly defrost your turkey — which many people do incorrectly.
"Most people put frozen turkeys in the fridge to defrost, but this isn't the best way. This is because it's out of the freezer for some time. The outside also tends to defrost quicker than the inside, leaving space for bacteria to develop," explains Warriner.
Instead, the food scientist suggests submerging the frozen bird in a sink of cold water. Change the water every two to three hours, which promotes an even defrost.
"The water helps defrost the turkey safely and quickly, while keeping the surface sufficiently cold to prevent the growth of microbes...Just make sure to never defrost your turkey out on the counter," he adds.
3. Never go by the juices
Turkeys can take a long time to cook. Warriner says that the meat needs to reach an internal temperature of 73 degrees Celsius (163.4 Fahrenheit) to be fully cooked (approximately 15 minutes of cooking per pound).
"People sometimes go by the look of the juices to tell when a turkey is done, but that's simply not good enough," he says.
Instead, Warriner encourages people to use a meat thermometer. Insert the instrument into the coldest part of the bird (such as the middle of the thigh) to check for doneness in an oven, air fryer or rotisserie.
"People sometimes go by the look of the juices to tell when a turkey is done, but that's simply not good enough."Dr. Keith Warriner
4. Cook your stuffing separately
"Never cook your stuffing inside the turkey, always do it separately," Warriner warns.
According to the professor, Cooking stuffing inside the bird should be avoided because it will insulate the turkey and prevent hot air from cooking the inside of the turkey, providing optimal grounds for the bacteria to spread or to be insufficiently killed.
Instead, stuffing should be cooked on the stovetop, in a crock pot, or baked in an oven.
5. Use clean carving utensils when the turkey is done
"As cooking progresses, it's easy to lose track of what knives and forks you've used for what. This is dangerous as raw meat bacteria can become transferred to your other dishes without you knowing," Warriner says.
Similar to the preparation stage, Warriner says to use a clean cutting board to carve the turkey.
"Turkeys need to rest for 15 to 30 minutes before carving, but do not wait much longer than that as bacteria can develop that causes food poisoning," he adds.
"Once leftovers are in the fridge to prevent pathogens from growing, only keep them for four to five days."Dr. Keith Warriner
6. Store leftovers in the fridge or freezer
Another mistake Warriner sees people make when it comes to Thanksgiving is keeping the leftovers for too long, or not properly storing them in general.
"Once leftovers are in the fridge to prevent pathogens from growing, only keep them for four to five days. After that it's really not good anymore because the dreaded bacteria can spread which is unsafe to consume," he says.
If you know you won't eat your leftovers within this time frame, the educator recommends freezing the leftover meat for up to three months in individually sliced portions.
7. Abide by the two hour rule
After carving and serving the meal, Warriner goes by the tried-and-true two hour rule.
"After two hours, the meat must be put in the fridge or frozen. This is the simplest and most effective way to prevent illness, but it's one that many people forget to do because they're enjoying themselves and catching up with family, so they often forget to put the leftover turkey away," he explains.
"After two hours, the meat must be put in the fridge or frozen. This is the simplest and most effective way to prevent illness."Dr. Keith Warriner
8. Sanitize with bleach, not vinegar
"This may seem intuitive, but it's one people get lax about," says Warriner. "Sanitize your kitchen surfaces with a diluted bleach solution to kill all the bad bacteria. This is the most effective way to clean up after Thanksgiving."
Warriner also explains that while many people use a simple vinegar and water solution on their countertops, it's simply not good enough.
"While it may clean surfaces, vinegar or even regular soap may not fully kill the bacteria — there's a difference," he reveals.
9. Be wary of your side dishes
While most people focus on turkey as the star of the meal, there are other aspects to consider when it comes to preventing food borne illness.
Warriner recommends properly washing root vegetables and salad greens, as they can come contaminated from the farm. Moreover, the expert reveals that seafood and rice can also be problem-starters for any meal.
"Sometimes people serve seafood or shrimp as a starter, and that's something that can go bad fast if out on the counter for too long, so make sure to serve it on ice," he cautions. "Rice is also dangerous in terms of leftovers, so if you are cooking rice either freeze or refrigerate the leftovers right away and reheat it thoroughly the next time you intend to eat it to remove any bacteria."