Given that, according to the USDA, nearly 70 percent of people wash their Thanksgiving turkey before cooking it, this advice might come as a shock.
The USDA wants you to wash your hands, not your turkey, despite what mom, Grandma and various recipes might tell you.
It has offered that recommendation for several years now, but it’s clearly not taken to heart. This year, though, the advice has gotten a lot of press and headlines.
“Do you wash your turkey? USDA says don’t do that.”
“Skip the sink when prepping turkey.”
“Sixty-eight percent of people wash their turkey before cooking; however, USDA does not recommend it because washing raw meat or poultry can splash bacteria around the sink, across counter tops and into already prepared foods,” the agency says in its annual tips for a bacteria-free Thanksgiving.
Washing the turkey is the most common food safety mistake, Janell Goodwin, a USDA technical information specialist told WTOP in Washington, D.C.
“You’re actually spreading bacteria up to five feet away,” Goodwin said. “Items that you have sitting over on the other counter can be cross-contaminated with these raw juices.”
It is virtually impossible to wash bacteria off the bird, the USDA says. But cooking turkey to the safe, minimal internal temperature of 165 degrees will kill any bacteria, making washing an unnecessary step, the USDA says.
“The only way to determine if a turkey (or any meat, poultry or seafood) is cooked is to check its internal temperature with a food thermometer,” the agency says.
“A whole turkey should be checked in three locations: the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. Your thermometer should register 165°F in all three places.”
There’s one exception to the no-wash rule: brined turkeys.
The only reason a whole turkey should be washed is if it was brined, the agency says. If you brought a brined turkey or brined it at home you must rinse off the brine before it goes into the oven, the USDA says.
“When rinsing brine off of a turkey, be sure to remove all other food or objects from the sink, layer the area with paper towels and allow a slow stream of water to avoid splashing,” the USDA recommends.
If the raw turkey or its juices come in contact with a kitchen surface, wash the countertop and sink with hot, soapy water, says the agency.
Home cooks worry a lot about making their guests sick at Thanksgiving.
“We receive an increase of calls on the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline around Thanksgiving because people are stressed and have a lot of questions about thawing and cooking their turkey,” says Marianne Gravely, senior technical specialist at USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.
“Since this is such a large family feast, we want to make sure people prepare their food in a safe manner to avoid foodborne illness.”
And about your hands. You do need to wash those before and after handling the turkey and its packaging to avoid spreading harmful bacteria. The USDA recommends using warm water and soap for 20 seconds.
The USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline has food safety experts on hand to answer questions about your holiday feast: 888-674-6854. On Thanksgiving the hotline will be open from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. central.