Proper thawing, handling, & cooking as important as ever, says CSPI

Consumers shopping for Thanksgiving turkeys this year will have no idea if their turkeys are coming from clean facilities or dirty facilities, according to the nonprofit food-safety watchdog, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). That’s because the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has all but abandoned a program that tests whole turkeys for Salmonella—a leading cause of foodborne illness. CSPI called on Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to restore that program, and to also test whole turkeys for another bacterium, Campylobacter.

“Who is the turkey at USDA that stopped testing turkeys?” asked CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “Without government testing, turkey producers have less incentive to control dangerous hazards like Salmonella and Campylobacter, and consumers have less information on which to base their choices.”

According to CSPI, children and senior citizens are especially vulnerable to foodborne illness from Salmonella. But to reduce the risk of food poisoning all consumers, no matter where they get their turkey, should follow some basic rules for thawing, handling, and cooking:

  • Thawing. Frozen turkeys can be thawed in the refrigerator, microwave, or in cold water. For turkeys thawed in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey. If thawing in cold water, the water should be changed every 30 minutes and allow 30 minutes of defrosting per pound of turkey.
  • Handling. Use hot soapy water to clean hands, counter tops, and utensils before and after preparing the turkey. Many cases of foodborne illness result from cross-contamination in the kitchen.
  • Cooking. Set oven temperature to at least 325 degrees, and cook the turkey until a meat thermometer reads 165 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh. CSPI recommends cooking stuffing outside the turkey rather than inside.
  • Leftovers. Leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours after the meal. Divide the turkey into smaller pieces and store the turkey separately from leftover stuffing and gravy.

“These turkey safety tips may seem elementary, but they’re worth repeating, especially for the benefit of first-time turkey cooks,” DeWaal said. “Believe it or not, we’ve been told that people have asked whether they can thaw their turkey with a hair dryer or cook it in the dishwasher.”

But CSPI also says that even the most diligent home cooks deserve the security of a government safety testing program, and the opportunity to chose turkeys from plants that demonstrate success at controlling Salmonella.

“Previous government testing has shown that some turkey plants can achieve a contamination rate of zero percent,” DeWaal said. “But because USDA isn’t testing, consumers can’t seek out the best birds.”

CSPI also today issued an email activist alert to its subscribers.

“We need consumers’ help if we are going to get useful consumer information from USDA next year,” DeWaal said. “Visit our website at and tell Secretary Veneman to restart the testing of turkeys for Salmonella and Campylobacter, so the public can choose safer turkeys next year.”