Safety Alerts Saves Lives
Safety Alerts  
Home Privacy About Us Contact Us Change Preferences

" "
November 15

Prevent Foodborne Illness This Holiday Season - Safety Tips for Handling the Turkey Dinner

Washington, D.C. (SafetyAlerts) - "How long can a turkey be kept in the freezer?" This question is often heard by the food safety specialists answering USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline. Although the optimum freezing time for quality -- best flavor and texture -- is 1 year, consumers are usually surprised to learn that, from a safety standpoint, frozen turkeys may be kept indefinitely in a freezer.

Although turkey is enjoyed year round, the peak time for buying, cooking, and storing whole turkeys is the November and December holiday season. This is the time we see a large increase in the number of whole turkeys for sale in our local grocery stores.

When choosing a Turkey this holiday season, consumers may see quite a few different terms on the label of the birds.   Although there is normally very little distinguishable difference in the quality and nutrition of turkeys, understanding labeling definitions can help consumers make informed decisions and choose a turkey that best meets their particular needs.

Labeling Definitions

BASTED or SELF-BASTED – Bone-in poultry products (such as whole birds) that are injected or marinated with a solution containing butter or other edible fat, broth, stock, or water, plus spices, flavor enhancers, and other approved substances must be labeled as "basted" or "self-basted". The maximum added weight of approximately 3% solution before processing is included in the net weight on the label. Labels must include a statement identifying the total quantity and common or usual name of all ingredients in the solution, e.g., "Injected with approximately 3% of a solution of _____________ (list of ingredients)."

When using the terms "basted" or "self-basted" on boneless poultry products (such as turkey breasts and roasts), the solution is limited to 8% of the weight of the raw poultry before processing.

FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING – In order to use these terms on a label, producers must demonstrate to USDA that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.

FRESH POULTRY – Turkeys to be sold as "fresh" must be stored at a temperature no lower than 26 °F.

FROZEN POULTRY – Turkeys sold as "frozen" must be stored at 0 EF or below.

FRYER-ROASTER TURKEY – A young turkey, usually less than 16 weeks of age and of either sex.

HEN or TOM TURKEY – The sex designation of "hen" (female) or "tom" (male) turkey is optional on the label and is an indication of size rather than tenderness.

KOSHER – "Kosher" may be used only on the labels of turkeys that are prepared under Rabbinical supervision.

MINIMAL PROCESSING – Minimally processed could include: (a) those traditional processes used to make food edible or to preserve it or to make it safe for human consumption, e.g., smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, and fermenting; (b) those physical processes which do not fundamentally alter the raw product and/or which only separate a whole turkey into parts or grinding of the turkey.

NATURAL – Turkey containing no artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient and is minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled "natural." The label must explain the use of the term "natural" (e.g., no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed).

NO ANTIBIOTICS – The term "no antibiotics added" may be used on labels for poultry products if the producer sufficiently documents to FSIS that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

NO HORMONES – Hormones are not allowed in raising poultry. Therefore, the claim "no hormones added" cannot be used on the labels of poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says, "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."

ORGANIC – The term "organic" has not yet been defined by the USDA, although the Department is currently working on a definition. Until the definition is final, USDA is permitting certain meat and poultry products to be labeled "certified organic by (name of certifying entity)." The label must be pre-approved by USDA and the claim must meet certain basic criteria. The certifying entity must have standards that define what constitutes an "organically produced" product and a system for ensuring that the products meet those standards.

After You Buy Your Turkey

There are many steps and safegaurds taken by the FSIS to help ensure your recieve safe quality turkeys.  After you have purchased a bird, there are things you can do to prevent foodborne illness and ensure quality.

FRESH TURKEYS -   Those to be sold fresh are quick-chilled, prior to your purchase, to 40 °F or lower, but must not go below a temperature of 26 °F.

Fresh turkeys should be refrigerated and used within 1 to 2 days from purchase, or they can be frozen for safe keeping.

FROZEN TURKEYS - Those to be sold frozen are rapidly frozen in blast freezers before they are shipped to the stores. The commercial blast freezer quickly takes the turkey to a freezing temperature, ensuring optimum safety and quality. They are then stored in freezers at 0 °F or below. Both fresh and frozen turkeys are transported in refrigerated trucks to their destination.

After purchase, frozen turkeys should be placed in a freezer until ready to be thawed. There are three safe ways to thaw a turkey:

  • Refrigerator – It is best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. A large frozen item like a turkey requires at least a day (24 hours) for every 4 to 5 pounds of weight. Once thawed in the refrigerator, it can remain refrigerated for a day or two before cooking. Turkey thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.

  • Cold Water – This method is faster than refrigerator thawing, but requires more attention. The turkey should be in leak-proof packaging or a plastic bag. Submerge the turkey in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. It will take about 30 minutes per pound. After thawing, refrigerate the turkey and cook it promptly. Turkey thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing.

  • Microwave – After microwave thawing, cook the turkey immediately because some areas of the turkey may become warm and begin to cook. Holding partially-cooked food is never recommended because any bacteria present would not have been destroyed and may have reached temperatures at which bacteria can grow. Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked before refreezing.

Raw turkey skin color is off white to a cream color. The color under the skin can range from pink to lavender or blue, depending on the amount of fat just under the skin.

Safe Cooking

Using a food thermometer is the only reliable way to ensure safety and to determine the "doneness" of most foods. To be safe, a food must be cooked to an internal temperature high enough to destroy any harmful bacteria that may be present. In fact, one of the critical factors in controlling bacteria in food is controlling temperature. Pathogenic microorganisms grow very slowly at low temperatures (40 °F and below), multiply rapidly in mid-range temperatures (the "Danger Zone"), and are killed at temperatures above 160 °F. It is essential to use a thermometer when cooking meat and poultry to prevent undercooking and, consequently, prevent foodborne illness.

Research has shown that, despite the critical importance of using a food thermometer, only 50 percent of consumers use them. Cookware manufacturers are trying to change this by developing food thermometers that are more visually appealing and easier to use. Some thermometers are larger and easier to read, some come in fashionable colors, and some appeal to the "gadget-lovers."  To see some of the available types of thermometers click here.

When cooking whole poultry, the thermometer should be inserted into the thickest part of the thigh. If poultry is stuffed, the center of the stuffing should be checked after the thigh reads 180 °F.The stuffing must reach 165 °F.  If cooking poultry parts, insert the thermometer into the thickest area, avoiding the bone. The thermometer may be inserted sideways if necessary. When the food being cooked varies in thickness, the temperature should be checked in several places.

For additional food safety information about meat, poultry, or eggs, call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1 (800) 535-4555


The information contained herein has been obtained from sources that the Company believes to be reliable, however, the Company has not independently verified or confirmed the information and the recipient acknowledges that no representations or warranties are being made in connection with the use of the information.