Whether your Thanksgiving celebration is big or small, many of us will start the day by cooking a turkey in the oven. That's why it's so important to remember that you should never wash a turkey before cooking. Seriously: It can be tempting to wash your turkey before you pop it into the oven, especially if it looks particularly slimy, but according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), doing so can ultimately do more harm than good. How come? Washing raw meat, including raw poultry, can actually increase your likelihood of spreading bacteria — and thus increase your chances of people getting seriously sick.
As Julie R. Thompson explains at The Huffington Post, rinsing or washing a raw turkey increases your odds of spreading bacteria for a simple reason that goes back to the fundamentals of food safety. As Thompson puts it, "Water that splashes from the bird onto countertops or other surfaces spreads the bacteria and creates a real possibility for cross contamination." The logic here is that while your raw turkey may carry bacteria on its surface, by rinsing it under water in your sink, you're risking that bacteria spreading to your countertops, hands, towels, other food you have out, and so on and so forth.
So, how do you actually kill potentially harmful bacteria that may be living on your turkey? Cook it until it reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. That's right: Harmful bacteria can literally be cooked out of your turkey. As the USDA describes, you can check to make sure your turkey is fully cooked by sticking your meat thermometer in three places:Tthe thickest part of the breast, the innermost part the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing.
Provided that your turkey is fully cooked, you should be just fine, although of course, there are always additional precautions to take — especially if your eating with people who may particularly vulnerable to food borne illnesses, like children, the elderly, or pregnant people. The USDA recommends washing your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before touching any food, including raw poultry. They also recommend using separate cutting boards, utensils, and plates to avoid cross-contamination. And even though literally no one feels like moving after eating a Thanksgiving meal, it's recommended to refrigerate leftovers within two hours to prevent bacteria from growing on food.
All of this said, taking good food safety precautions are definitely important for your health and the health of those around you. But remember: Not all bacteria is bad bacteria. There are germs and bacteria all around us, every single day, and many of them are actually good for us. The distinction here is that the bacteria we can get from raw poultry has the potential to cause serious health issues. So if you're one of those "I never get sick" people, don't take the risk — food safety matters when it comes to raw meat!
And if you're someone who is seriously freaked out, do your research on food safety and don't be afraid to ask for help! You might also consider simply getting a meat-free turkey, and having a vegetarian or vegan Thanksgiving meal.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!
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