Matt Lauer was trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. During a cooking segment on the "Today" show this month, he did the unthinkable: After handling an uncooked turkey, the TV host wiped his hands with a towel, then grabbed a piece of the cooked turkey that was sitting nearby and gobbled it down. There wasn't so much as a bottle of hand sanitizer in sight.
The tweets said, "Enjoy salmonella for the next 24 hours, idiot," and "We were screaming at the television set. Did you not hear us?" Lauer apologetically explained all of this on the next day's show.
Americans have gotten the message that raw poultry carries salmonella and other harmful bacteria. Ingest them and there's a good chance you'll get seriously sick. Approximately 1 million illnesses, with some 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths, occur annually in the United States as a result of salmonella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
To keep germs at bay when preparing a turkey, it takes more than washing your hands, points out Marianne Gravely, technical information specialist for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Gravely and other experts have fielded over 3 million calls in the 30 years since the opening of the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. Most come in during the weeks leading up to and following Thanksgiving.
The turkey's unwieldy size makes things challenging, says Gravely, which is why you have to plan ahead and use good kitchen habits at every stage of cooking.
When buying a turkey, think about timing. Frozen birds need enough time to thaw safely in the refrigerator (see sidebar); fresh turkeys should sit only one or two days in your refrigerator.
Have rubs, seasonings, and herbs ready before unwrapping the bird, Gravely says. Stuffing affects the quality of the roasted poultry. She cautions that if you stuff a turkey, the bird can overcook before the stuffing reaches a safe temperature (it should be 165 degrees in the center). "That's why a lot of chefs don't really stuff their turkeys," she says.
Gravely also says the color of cooked turkey meat is not an accurate measure of doneness. Measure the temperature in three places; the meat should be 165 degrees in the thickest part of the breast, the innermost portion of the thigh, and the innermost portion of the wing. Use a calibrated thermometer and take measurements away from the bone and cavity.
Once the bird has been served, divide any remaining meat and sides among shallow dishes (keep meat and veggies separate), and refrigerate or freeze the food within two hours. Refrigerated leftovers are good for four days.
Hand-washing remains crucial, says Lauer now, especially "after you handle raw poultry of any, any kind." He admits that on the day of his offense, he had a brain cramp.
You know better.
USDA MEAT AND POULTRY HOTLINE Mon-Fri 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and on Thanksgiving Day, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. at 888-674-6854, or go to foodsafety.gov