Keep Thanksgiving safe: guard against "left-out" leftovers and "super germs"

Urge USDA to keep your family safe this Thanksgiving

Leftovers could pose as big a risk as the Thanksgiving feast

WASHINGTON — Over half of the food-poisoning outbreaks linked to turkey are caused by improper cooling, not improper cooking, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). In an analysis of outbreak data, the consumer group found that Clostridium perfringens and Staphylococcus aureus caused 52 percent of food-poisoning outbreaks linked to turkey between 1990 and 1997. Salmonella caused the remaining 48 percent of outbreaks.

     “Cooking turkeys thoroughly — to 180 degrees — can eliminate such well-known hazards as Salmonella andCampylobacter. But other problems can occur if holiday leftovers aren’t properly handled,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director for CSPI. “This year, we’re issuing a ‘leftovers alert’ for holiday food preparers, because a large percentage of food-poisoning outbreaks linked to turkey were caused by bacteria that grow in fully-cooked food that is left out too long or is not chilled thoroughly.”

     To stop bacterial growth on leftovers, CSPI recommends consumers use a simple formula:

  • 2 hours: Move the meal from the oven to the feast to the refrigerator in two hours or less.
  • 2 inches: Store refrigerated food at a shallow depth - about two inches - to speed chilling.
  • 4 days: Eat refrigerated leftovers in four days or less. Freeze leftovers that will be kept longer.

     “Following the 2 hours - 2 inches - 4 days formula for all leftovers could help prevent about 400,000 food-related illnesses each year,” said DeWaal.

     In addition to the usual bacteria on turkey and leftovers, consumers face a new risk from disease-causing antibiotic-resistant “super germs.” Powerful fluoroquinolone antibiotics, which are used to fight infections in humans, also are used on five to seven percent of turkey flocks, according to the turkey industry. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a ban on the two fluoroquinolones used in poultry farming, Baytril and SaraFlox. Their use is linked to an increase in fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter in chicken. Despite the dangers of resistant bacteria, the proposed FDA ban has yet to take full effect.

     “CSPI and public health officials have warned for years that the overuse of antibiotics in poultry could create drug-resistant ‘super germs.’ Unfortunately, our worst fears have come true,” said DeWaal. “Today, poultry consumers are far more likely to become ill from antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter than they were five years ago. Unless the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry is banned, foodborne infections in humans will become harder and harder to treat.”

     “We applaud Abbott Laboratories, the maker of SaraFlox, for voluntarily complying with FDA’s proposed ban,” DeWaal added. “However, the Bayer Corporation has not yet agreed to stop selling Baytril and may challenge the FDA. Bayer should stop marketing Baytril for use in poultry to protect public health.”

     Harmful bacteria is killed with proper cooking and handling. CSPI reminds holiday food preparers that they can help avoid food poisoning by washing their hands frequently, keeping turkeys refrigerated, and washing counters thoroughly with hot soapy water before and after handling the turkey.