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How Not to Poison Your Family, and Other Holiday Tips

Every holiday host wants to create a memorable Thanksgiving feast – but you want your guests to remember the meal, not how that food made them sick.

By Rose Hoban

Kate Houghton-Zatz was more than a little nervous about Thanksgiving. Her in-laws and parents had only met once before, and they were all coming for the big meal to the small apartment she shared with her husband, Dave, and brand-new baby, Zoe, in Teaneck, NJ.

Then she got more nervous when the turkey just wouldn’t cook.

“They were all sitting around, drinking wine and getting hungry, and saying where was the food.” Houghton-Zatz said. So she took the bird out and served it.

Thanksgiving is usually a joyful holiday, unless the food makes the family sick. Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Want

Thanksgiving is usually a joyful holiday, unless the food makes your family sick. Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want

Within 48 hours, everyone who ate the dinner got sick.

“Everyone but the baby, and that’s because she only had one tooth and didn’t eat the turkey,” Houghton-Zatz remembers. “My elderly parents were headed down the hallway, fighting over who would get to the bathroom first.

“The next day, my in-laws called, asking, ‘What are you trying to do, poison us?'”

It could happen to you

Sixteen years later, people still razz Houghton-Zatz about the incident. That’s why I called her: She was my boss at the time, and she came back to work the following Monday with tales of a weekend of barfing.

It made an impression.

Houghton-Zatz made a dozen people sick, but no one knows for sure how many people get sick from eating undercooked turkeys at Thanksgiving or undercooked roast beef at Christmas, said Ben Chapman, a food-safety specialist who does research at North Carolina State University.

“For every case of confirmed salmonella we count, we estimate another 38 people get sick from the pathogen,” Chapman said.

“Lots of people, like your friend, don’t go to the doctor,” Chapman said. “So they might have gotten sick, but with no stool sample it’s not a confirmed case. The only way a case gets confirmed is to have that sample.”

For example, in the recent Cleveland County Fair E. coli outbreak, only about 15 of the 106 reported cases were confirmed.

NCSU researcher Ben Chapman demonstrates how to prevent bacterial contamination, one of a series of food safety videos available here

Chapman said food-safety experts estimate about 48 million Americans get sick from a food-borne illness every year.

“Bacteria is everywhere,” he said. “Something like the salmonella that we’re talking about aren’t the same as the strains that will make the turkeys sick. We have E. coli in our guts, and if we didn’t have it we couldn’t digest. But ours don’t have the virulent and toxin-producing factors that are in meat and poultry.”

Multiple studies have found that meats and poultry purchased at supermarkets in the U.S. are often contaminated with salmonella, E. coli, listeria or campylobacter, all bacteria that can make people sick. In one study, at least 70 percent of chicken samples purchased at supermarkets in an East Coast city tested positive for campylobacter and 38 percent tested positive for E. coli.

“For some, these little bugs, as little as one cell, can make you sick,” Chapman said. “I just assume there’s a decent chance I’ll have a pathogen in there, so I handle it that way.”

Temperature, temperature, temperature

Houghton-Zatz now has at least three thermometers for cooking her Thanksgiving bird.

“I don’t believe just one,” she said. “I cook the turkey to at least 175 degrees. I know that’s overcompensating, but I’m not going to let that happen again.

“I usually cook them in a turkey bag, so it doesn’t dry out. And I know that middle is cooked,” she added.

Chapman has prepared a series of 3 tipsheets on holiday food safety available here.

Chapman has prepared a series of 3 tipsheets on holiday food safety available for download here.

Chapman said Houghton-Zatz has it right: Temperature is key.

“The biggest tool to have is a thermometer. I’m a thermometer snob,” said Chapman, who prefers to use a digital thermometer, which he said are better than thermometers with long stems that collect information all along the stem.

“Having a thermometer makes you a better cook too. It’s worth investing in a $12 digital one,” he said. “I don’t overcook food as much as I used to now that I have a good thermometer.”

He also said food should get put into the refrigerator immediately after the meal to get it cooled down.

“Nowadays, refrigerators are built to handle hot food,” Chapman said, but he recommends cutting the turkey up and putting it into Ziploc bags to help it cool more quickly.

Even more important, Chapman said, one should handle the bird carefully to make sure juices that are possibly contaminated don’t get everywhere. He said washing the bird only spreads the bacteria around.

“You can spread it if you’re not careful by getting it on the faucet handle, your sponge, handles on the cupboards – stuff around your kitchen that you might be touching and you might not think is contaminated,” he said.

When asked about people who say they don’t follow food-safety rules to the letter and never get sick, Chapman said it’s simply a numbers game.

“These are the steps you should take to reduce risk,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that anytime you do it the other way, people will get sick, but the probability of it eventually happening is a lot higher.”

Cover turkey photo courtesy Lauren Kates, Flickr Creative Commons

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2 Comments

  1. Squirts up to three feet: washing turkey can spread bacteria | barfblogNov 20, 2012 at 5:56 am

    […] People do and say lots of silly things around Thanksgiving. Chapman was even quoted, to his subsequent horror, saying “nowadays” in an interview. […]

  2. Kate Houghton ZatzNov 22, 2012 at 8:47 am

    With the thermometer, the turkey is in the oven and the in-laws are coming back.

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