Food Protection Connection: Talking Turkey
(reprinted from Dietary Manager, November/December 2007)
Each Food Protection Connection column is approved for 1 CPE hour (level 1) for RDs and DTRs.
In follow-up to last month’s Food Protection column about ham and holidays, here is another holiday entrée that demands food-safe planning and procedures: Let’s talk turkey! This month’s column will help you pinpoint hazards and fine-tune your preparation procedures to make it a safe holiday season for everyone you serve.
A Turkey Primer
Turkey is a native bird to North America, and a traditional holiday entree with rich historical meaning in the US. It’s an indispensable symbol of the fall harvest and celebration. Turkey is so popular that the average American eats about 17 pounds annually, and years ago, Ben Franklin suggested that turkey be named the official bird of the US.
As with other meats, the USDA enforces inspection, grading, and labeling regulations for today’s turkey. Turkeys we purchase for holiday baking are Grade A. In 1997, the USDA issued a labeling rule for turkey, defining the term “fresh,” as distinguished from a frozen bird. A turkey must always be held at 26-40°F to be labeled as “fresh.” Foods freeze or turn solid at various temperatures, depending on their composition. For turkey, the freezing point is just below 26°F. After purchase, the USDA recommends storing a fresh turkey at 26-40°F.
A turkey labeled as “fresh” also cannot contain additives. However, a “basted” or “self-basted” turkey includes additives such as broth, fat, water, spices, and/or flavor enhancers, up to three percent by weight.
Many turkeys are dated with a “sellby” or “use-by” date. These dates do not reflect wholesomeness, says the USDA, but do suggest quality. A whole turkey will keep frozen for at least a year.
Many people wonder about medicinal products poultry may be exposed to on the farm. Hormones, such as growth hormones, are not approved for use in turkey farming at all, according to the USDA. However, antibiotics may be used to prevent illnesses. What residues are likely to appear? None, says the USDA. Regulations require a withdrawal period. Antibiotics are discontinued for a period of time before slaughter so that they can clear the system, and there will be no residue in the meat.
By law, turkey may be irradiated to destroy bacteria. In this case, special labeling is required. The label will bear the radiation symbol and the phrase, “treated with/by irradiation.”
What’s inside a packaged whole turkey? Often, the answer is giblets. Giblets are a set of organs from the turkey—liver, heart, and gizzard. Interesting facts about giblets include:
- The giblets in the bag are not from the same bird, notes the USDA.
- Giblets are inspected by the USDA, but not graded.
- The USDA does not require “useby” dates for giblets.
- A liver in giblets may on rare occasions be green. This would reflect bile that entered from a gallbladder. Even though it is unattractive, a green giblet piece is safe to eat.
Dark or White Meat?
Everyone has a favorite—dark meat or white meat. Dark meat contains a bit more of a chemical called myoglobin. Myoglobin both gives the meat color and stores oxygen to help muscles work. The difference in color relates to how parts of the bird function. Legs contain a lot of hard-working muscle, with more myoglobin. Dark meat also contains more fat (yes, a few more calories) and has a distinctive flavor. A typical turkey is 70 percent white meat; 30 percent dark meat.
How about the pink color we sometimes see in cooked turkey? Our senses tell us pink meat is too raw to eat. Yet USDA scientists say we can’t judge doneness of meat by color. Even a fully cooked turkey may have some pink coloration. Here’s why: Any myoglobin that has not been destroyed in cooking may be chemically oxidized, which gives it some pink color. Young turkeys tend to have a bit more pink coloration than older birds. Smoked turkey is pink because of the nitrites in it. The upshot: We can’t eyeball doneness. A thermometer is essential for monitoring food safety.
Turkey has been a culprit in numerous foodborne illnesses over the past decade. Frequently cited pathogens include Salmonella bacteria and Campylobacter jejuni, both of which inhabit the digestive tracts of live birds on the farm. Both these germs are destroyed by thorough cooking.
Staphylococcus aureus is another pathogen of concern. This bacterium is carried in human nasal passages and on skin, and is often present in infected cuts. As it grows, it forms a toxin that is not destroyed by cooking. Here is where diligent handwashing, health precautions, and personal hygiene come into play. These practices can help prevent contamination of a turkey by foodservice workers.
Cross contamination of utensils, cutting boards, gloves, and any foodcontact surface is an ever-present risk wherever raw turkey is being prepared. Sanitation standards call for thorough cleaning and sanitizing of all surfaces because pathogens from raw meat can later contaminate other foods.
It’s time to start mashing potatoes and making gravy. Remember that these foods, too, require stringent temperature control for food safety. When you prepare your holiday recipes this year, take a look at controls and CCPs, and remind employees of handwashing and hygiene policies. You can ensure your entire work team is ready to serve a safe and enjoyable holiday feast.
SAFE TURKEY PREPARATION TIPS
Here are some tips for safe turkey preparation this year:
- For frozen turkey, follow safe defrosting procedures. Allow one day under refrigeration for every five pounds.
- Stuff the bird immediately before cooking (not earlier). Or, cook stuffing separately from the bird (recommended). This prevents cool spots, allowing for uniform cooking.
- Bake turkey at an oven temperature of at least 325°F.
- Avoid partially cooking a turkey to finish later.
- Cook turkey, giblets, and stuffing to an endpoint temperature of at least 165°F throughout. (Follow the temperature standards in your local health code and/or corporate procedures.) In most HACCP plans, the final temperature is a Critical Control Point (CCP).
- Take the temperature by inserting the thermometer probe into the thickest part of the breast meat, away from bone. If the turkey has a pop-up indicator, you should still take the temperature for accuracy.
- What if a cook forgets to remove the bag of giblets from inside the bird before cooking? The USDA says properly cooked paper-packaged giblets are still safe to eat (but remove the paper!)
- Ensure proper holding during service—at or above 135°F.
- Promptly cover, label, date, and chill any leftovers. If you will later be serving them hot, reheat to a temperature of at least 165°F.
Food Safety and Inspection Service:
By Sue Grossbauer