A properly prepared turkey and safe food handling practices go a long way in keeping friends and families safe from foodborne illness during the holiday season, and the state health department is offering tips on how to do just that.

• Defrosting the turkey: There are three safe ways to thaw a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave. Never thaw a turkey or other meats on the kitchen counter.

The safest way is to thaw it in the refrigerator. Leave the turkey in its original wrapping and place it on a tray in the bottom section of the refrigerator. Every five pounds needs at least one day to thaw in the fridge, so a 10-pound turkey will take two full days and a 20-pound bird will need at least four.

Turkeys can also be thawed in a cold-water bath. This requires submerging the bird in its original wrapper in cold tap water and adding new cold water about every 30 minutes. Every pound needs about 30 minutes to thaw, so a 10-pound bird would need five hours. Using this method, the turkey must be cooked immediately.

For thawing in a microwave, the health department recommends following the guidelines for thawing that came with the appliance. Turkeys thawed in the microwave also must be cooked immediately.

• Be wary of cross-contamination: "Wash your hands, but not your turkey!" That's the advice of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA warns that it's nearly impossible to wash bacteria off the bird, and juices that splash during washing can transfer bacteria onto kitchen surfaces, other foods and utensils. The best way to avoid the spread of harmful bacteria is to wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling the turkey and its packaging.

The only way to destroy bacteria on a turkey is to cook it to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit as measured by a food thermometer. Be sure to check the turkey's temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing, and the thickest part of the breast.

• Safe cooking temperatures for other foods: Seafood, 145 degrees Fahrenheit; ground beef, veal, lamb and pork, 160 degrees; ground turkey, chicken and other poultry products, 165 degrees.

• Keep it clean: Keep utensils and surfaces clean with hot, soapy water. And wash your hands before and after handling all food. It's also important to wash fresh fruits and vegetables before preparation.

• Separate foods: Use two cutting boards, one for meat and the other for everything else. And never put cooked food back on plates or platters where raw meat or poultry was previously stored.

• Safe Food Storage: Keep hot foods at 135 degrees or warmer. Keep cold foods at 41 degrees or below. And foods that sit out for longer than two hours should be discarded. Remember, when in doubt, throw it out!

• Eggs: Use pasteurized eggs for dishes containing raw eggs because Salmonella and other harmful germs can live on both the outside and inside of them. Pasteurized shell eggs can be identified by a red "P" in a circle stamped on the shell. And as a reminder, the health department says to never eat uncooked cookie dough or batter, which may contain raw eggs.

• Leftovers: Refrigerate leftovers as quickly as possible, preferably in shallow containers that can cool off more quickly. The shelf-life of leftovers varies, but most are only good for three to four days. Frozen leftovers will last between two and six months. Reheat all leftovers to 165 degrees Fahrenheit throughout or until steaming hot. Soups, sauces and gravies should be brought to a rolling boil for at least one minute.

Signs and Symptoms of Foodborne Illness

Food poisoning symptoms may range from mild to severe and may differ depending on the germ. The most common symptoms are upset stomach, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Symptoms may take hours or days to show up. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends seeing a health care provider if your symptoms are severe, including bloody stools, a temperature over 102 degrees Fahrenheit, frequent vomiting, signs of dehydration and diarrhea that lasts more than three days.

Each year, the CDC estimates one in six Americans get sick from eating contaminated food, and of those 48 million people, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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