WASHINGTON – Cooking a turkey is hard,but preparing one safely can be even harder.
According to a consumer guide released last year by the Center for Science in the Public Interest,the U.S. Department of Agriculture found salmonella contamination in whole turkeys from 37 of 38 American turkey plants tested in 2001.
At a Wednesday press conference,Caroline Smith DeWaal,food safety director at the center,said the guide,published in the Nutrition Action Healthletter,helped consumers pick safer turkeys to feed their families.
This year,the center was barely able to update its guide,DeWaal said,because USDA didn't test as many turkeys in 2002. “Who is the turkey at USDA that stopped testing turkeys for salmonella?” DeWaal asked.
Contamination levels in 2001 ranged from 1.7 percent to almost 50 percent. The center's “Best Bird” award went to Perdue Foods of Washington,Ind.,which had zero contamination. The baddest of the “Bad Birds” came from ConAgra Poultry in Longmont,Colo.,which showed 49.1 percent contamination.
New information was provided for only one plant in 2002,Michigan Turkey Producers of Wyoming,Mich.,for which the 1.8 percent contamination level remained the same.
“Purchasing a turkey with a lower incidence of salmonella means that a simple cooking or handling error is less likely to lead to food poisoning,” DeWaal said.
In a phone interview,Steven Cohen,spokesman for the food safety and inspection service,said USDA never intended to repeat the 2001 tests,which were related to the development of a USDA rule.
He added that the 38 plants that were tested did not constitute a scientific sample.
Cohen stressed that his agency does adequately monitor turkey plants for salmonella and other health risks. “We have inspectors in every plant ensuring safety and wholesomeness,” he said.
DeWaal said she wondered why the USDA's turkey policy wasn't similar to how it deals with broiler chickens,which are also historically affected by salmonella.
“The chicken industry knows that the government can and will test them every year,especially if they have a poor record of performance,” she said.
Cohen said the USDA doesn't use the same testing methods for all products but salmonella has declined 67 percent across the board since 1998.
The baseline performance standard for salmonella in broiler chickens dropped by almost 50 percent,from 20 to 10.9 percent in 2002. Cohen said it's reasonable to assume salmonella incidence in turkeys has also decreased,in spite of the absence of a baseline standard.
“We have a very high confidence that the kinds of salmonella reductions that we have seen in other categories have also been achieved in turkeys,” Cohen said.
All of the plants that showed “higher than expected” salmonella levels in 2001 received more attention from the USDA,he said. “We went to every one of those plants … and made sure we identified whatever problems they were having and [that the problems] were corrected promptly,” he said.
An overall salmonella risk assessment in poultry going on now will determine how the USDA will deal with salmonella in the future,Cohen said.
Avoiding salmonella,which can cause food poisoning,is also up to the consumer.
The dangerous bacteria could lurk in an undercooked bird or on surfaces and utensils a raw turkey touched. Salmonella can also linger in leftovers.
Mary Davis,45,a government accountant from Temple Hills,Md.,said salmonella is a “big concern” at her house.
Her husband,who every year fries a fresh bird from a local poultry market,has a personal remedy against the bacteria. “He uses lemon juice before he fries it,” Davis said,laughing.
DeWaal suggested that consumers treat every turkey “as though it is covered with salmonella.”
Common turkey blunders she noted include using a hairdryer to thaw the bird,washing it with anti-bacterial soap and leaving the remains of a holiday feast out overnight.
DeWaal's center publishes a brochure of safe food tips for the holidays:
* Don't thaw a frozen bird on the counter. Make room in the refrigerator.
* Allow 24 hours of defrosting for every 5 pounds of turkey. When defrosting in cold water,allow 30 minutes for each pound and change water every 30 minutes. If using the microwave,cook the thawed turkey immediately.
* Buy a fresh turkey only one or two days before cooking.
* Clean everything immediately after it comes into contact with the raw turkey or its juices with hot,soapy water. To disinfect sponges,run them through the dishwasher or boil them on the stove.
* Set the oven at a minimum of 325 degrees to cook the turkey to 180 degrees. Even if a turkey has a “pop-up” thermometer,check the temperature in the thick part of the thigh with a conventional meat thermometer.
* When serving,keep second and third helpings above 140 degrees in the oven or below 40 degrees in the refrigerator. Whenever possible,put additional food out on clean platters.
For more information on turkey preparation,call the USDA's meat and poultry hotline,(888) 647-6854.