Will your holiday meal be remembered as a great gastronomic delight or as the source of dreaded gastrointestinal distress? The turkey that you serve can be risky if you are not careful selecting and preparing it.

Poultry products such as turkey and chicken are primary sources of the bacteria Salmonella and Campylobacter. These organisms are the two most commonly reported causes of these foodborne illness according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Symptoms, such as stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea and fever, usually occur 1-5 days after eating foods with high levels of bacteria.

Usually bacteria such as these are not harmful at levels typically found in these food sources. However, when these microorganisms are given favorable conditions, they can grow to harmful levels and make people sick. The moist high protein content of turkey provides needed nutrients for bacteria to multiply. With warm temperatures (from 40°F to 140°F) and enough time (usually 2-4 hours), bacteria can multiply rapidly from hundreds to thousands per bite!

Therefore, it is vital to keep foods out of the Danger Zone, the temperature range of 40°F to 140°F.

While turkey may be the original source of bacteria, these organisms can spread to other foods. Cross-contamination may occur when you stuff the turkey and do not properly wash your hands or cutting utensils before slicing vegetables for a snack or appetizer. The cutting board and/or knife are contaminated with bacteria and, without thoroughly cleaning, can spread the harmful bacteria to the uncooked vegetables. Your hands may be the source of other bacteria as well.

The Department of Public Health recommends that you protect yourself, your family and friends by following these 10 safe turkey tips.

Top Ten Safe Turkey Tips

Separate Foods - Don't cross-contaminate

  • When you shop, keep the turkey away from other foods in your shopping cart.
  • Place the turkey below other foods in your refrigerator in order to prevent other foods from becoming contaminated with juices from the turkey.
  • Use a separate cutting boards for cooked foods and raw foods.
  • Never put the cooked turkey on the unwashed plate that previously held the uncooked turkey.

Clean your hands and food surfaces often.
  • Wash your hands with hot soapy water before you touch the turkey and after you use the bathroom, change diapers, and play with pets.
  • Wash all cutting boards, dishes, kitchen tools and counter tops with hot soapy water after you finish fixing the turkey.

Cook foods to safe temperatures.
  • Cook the turkey thoroughly. Use a food thermometer to check for doneness.
  • Cook whole turkey unstuffed (or dark meat only) to 180°F
  • Cook a turkey breast to 170°F

Chill foods promptly.
  • It is best to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, NOT at room temperature.

Thaw a whole turkey in the refrigerator.
  • 8 to 12 pounds - 1 to 2 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds - 2 to 3 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds - 3 to 4 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds - 4 to 5 days

In a pinch you can also thaw the turkey in cold water. Cook the thawed turkey immediately.
  • Put prepared foods and leftover turkey in the refrigerator within two hours.
  • Split large amounts of leftovers into small bowls and cool them in the refrigerator.


This information is provided by the Food Protection Program within the Department of Public Health.