Safe Food Handling for a Healthy Thanksgiving

For Immediate Release: November 23, 2009
Media Contact: Communication Office
Vermont Department of Health

BURLINGTON – Improper storage and temperature control, or unclean countertops, utensils or sponges can quickly turn a festive Thanksgiving into a foul holiday.

“Cook the turkey thoroughly, wash hands and wipe down counter tops often, use clean utensils, thaw food properly, and put leftovers away promptly,” said Erica Berl, foodborne disease epidemiologist for the Health Department. “Each year we remind Vermonters that these steps are the best way to avoid foodborne illness.”

Each year, an estimated 45 million turkeys are eaten in the United States at Thanksgiving.

Steps that everyone should follow to keep their food safe during the holidays:

  1. Wash your hands before handling any food, especially after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets. It is also important to wash your hands after handling raw foods.
  2. Bacteria can live in towels, sponges, and dish cloths. Wash them often and replace sponges every few weeks.
  3. Be alert to avoid for cross contamination. Keep raw meat, poultry, fish and their juices away from other foods. Wash your hands, cutting board, and knife in hot soapy water after cutting raw turkey and before cutting up other ingredients. Better yet, use separate cutting boards for meats and vegetables.
  4. Cook all foods to proper temperature. For turkeys, cook until the meat thermometer reads 180°F in the thigh, 170°F in the breast, and 165°F in the stuffing. Re-heat leftovers to 165°F or until they are hot and steaming.
  5. Refrigerate leftovers right away. Don’t leave leftovers out for more than two hours. Place leftovers in shallow storage containers to refrigerate or freeze.
  6. After cooking, remove stuffing from poultry or other meat and refrigerate stuffing and meat separately.

About Defrosting

Never defrost food at room temperature. Defrosting turkeys and other large, frozen meats is especially challenging for cooks. To defrost in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours for each 5 lbs. of meat. Be sure to place a plate or container under the meat while it is defrosting, so that the juices won’t contaminate other foods, and put the plate on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator.

If you need to defrost more quickly, you can use cold water. Keep the meat in its unopened wrapper and cover with cold water in a container or sink. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep the surface cold. The estimated thawing time is 30 minutes per 1 lb. of meat.

Gravy and side dishes can be sources of illness as well, so Vermonters are reminded not to just pay attention to properly cooking the turkey. All vegetables should be washed thoroughly as well.

Visit the Health Department website at for more information on “Safe Food Handling for a Healthy Holiday” at:


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