Food Safety: General Information

Center for Science in the Public Interest

Testimonies and Speeches

Testimony of Caroline Smith DeWaal on Turkey Safety, Director of Food Safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, at the National Press Club
November 19, 2001
Washington, DC

     We are thrilled to be invited back to the National Press Club this Thanksgiving to talk about food safety. This is our fifth “turkey talk” at the National Press Club and I want to thank Bill McCarren and Jim Swenson for making it possible again this year.

     The impact of events on September 11 has touched us all. This holiday season, we hear that there are fewer people flying and more people staying home, which means there may be even more first-time feast preparers than usual this year.

     If you are preparing a turkey for the first time, we have some advice. Either get a long phone cord so your mother or father can guide you from afar or do a little research on how to protect yourself from food poisoning. We are out of cords, but we can help with the second option.

     But before we get to the “meat” of the issue, I want to talk about an “inside the beltway” issue that effects every American. Each holiday, the table overflows with a variety of foods, from roast turkey to roast tofu, sweet potatoes to candied apples. While we enjoy access to a variety of food, we certainly don’t need a virtual smorgasbord of federal agencies to oversee food safety. But, in fact, the National Academy of Sciences has documented that there are at least twelve federal agencies that play a role in ensuring the safety of our food.

     While it would take a Ph.D. in government administration to explain how the federal food safety system works, it is clear that the system is ineffective and inefficient. Luckily today we have a real expert on food safety in the United States Congress to explain both the problems and how to fix them.

     Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut has joined us. She has been a leading member of the House since 1991, a member of the Appropriations committee, and a strong advocate for food safety.

     We strongly support the Safe Food Act, sponsored by Representative DeLauro and Senator Durbin, to unify food safety functions under a single agency.

     Now let’s get back to the turkey. For the last four years at this press event, we have complained about the fact that the government has been testing chickens and meat products but not turkeys for the presence of Salmonella bacteria, as part of its pathogen-reduction program. Salmonella in food is responsible for 1.3 million illnesses, 15,000 hospitalizations, and over 500 deaths a year. The good news this year is that the government finally is testing turkeys! In fact, since February 2001, the USDA has collected over 2,200 turkey samples from some 45 plants. The USDA’s testing has documented that about 13% of the turkeys sampled carry the well-known food hazard Salmonella, a rate higher than the Salmonella prevalence in ground beef (3.3%) or chicken (9.1%). Surprisingly, smaller slaughter plants had a lower percentage of infected turkeys (10%) than larger slaughter plants (14%).

     Many turkey plants did well on the tests. The USDA reported that at almost one-third of the plants, only one in twenty turkeys was contaminated with Salmonella. But in another 15% of the plants, turkeys were contaminated at much higher rates: at least one in every five birds had Salmonella. And in the worst plant, the government found Salmonella on every other turkey they tested!

     The large number of plants that are producing cleaner turkeys is a great sign. It means that farm and slaughter practices in use today can produce turkeys with little or no Salmonella. But the fact that some plants are producing large numbers of contaminated turkeys is troubling. Equally troubling is the fact that the government won’t tell us—without a lengthy Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request—which plants are producing the cleaner turkeys and which ones are producing the dirty ones.

     CSPI believes that consumers have a right to know which plants are meeting the USDA’s pathogen-reduction standards. So we have submitted a FOIA request to get the government’s test results for turkeys, including the identity of all the plants. We’ll let you know what we find out. In addition, this fall CSPI petitioned to have the government make all of the USDA’s Salmonella test results available on the Internet, so that any consumer can look up the results and choose their turkey, chicken, or ground beef from among the cleanest plants.

     Until the USDA decides to share what they and the turkey industry already know, consumers need to take precautions to ensure that the feast they prepare doesn’t turn into a fiasco. Here’s how:

  • Keep your uncooked turkey double-wrapped in your refrigerator or freezer. Raw turkey juices can spread bacteria, so make certain that when you are handling the turkey, your counters are clear. Everything that has touched the raw or partially cooked turkey, such as hands, thermometers, or other implements, needs to be scrubbed thoroughly with warm, soapy water.
  • To prevent illnesses, proper defrosting is as important as thorough cooking. Defrosting on the counter allows bacteria to grow on the surface of the turkey while the interior is still thawing. To prevent this, frozen turkeys should be thawed in the refrigerator. Simply allow one day for every five pounds.
  • Thermometers take the guesswork out of food safety. The best place to check the turkey’s temperature is in the thickest part of the thigh, away from the bone. Checking it in several places is even better. When the thermometer reads 180F in the thigh, your turkey is done. We recommend that you use a thermometer even if your turkey has a pop-up timer. They’re not always accurate.
  • Warm, moist stuffing inside a turkey is also a great place for bacteria to grow. This means a second temperature check is needed on the stuffing to ensure that it reaches 165F. If you don’t have a thermometer, be sure to thoroughly heat the stuffing on the stove after removing it from the turkey. Or, better yet, cook your stuffing on the stove instead of inside the bird.

     While Salmonella and Campylobacter are the best-known hazards for turkey consumers, they aren’t the only ones. How you handle the food after it’s cooked is as important. The hazards linked to improper cooling of fully cooked food cause an estimated 435,000 food poisoning illnesses annually. But leftover hazards can be avoided by remembering one simple formula:

  • 2 hours to move food from the oven to the feast to the refrigerator.
  • 2 inches to store food at a shallow depth to speed chilling.
  • 4 days to eat refrigerated leftovers. Freeze leftovers that you want to keep longer.

     Following the 2 hours/2 inches/4 days formula for leftovers at holiday time and all year long could help prevent over 400,000 food-related illnesses each year.

     Whether you are a first-time holiday cook or an old hand, it never hurts to review the basics of holiday food preparation. Everyone at CSPI hopes you enjoy a happy and healthy Thanksgiving holiday!