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Holiday Food Safety Bloopers

Posted by Diane Van, Manager, USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline in Health and Safety
Feb 21, 2017

Cross-posted from the blog.

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline talked to about 350 people on Thanksgiving Day about thawing, preparing and storing turkey. Most people were right on track and just needed some reassuring about handling the big bird. Some people, however, called about situations that could be disastrous – or even deadly.

Even though these problems involved turkey, the same food safety principles apply if you’re cooking ham, duck, goose or any another holiday meat.

Don’t Leave the Turkey Out for More Than Two Hours!

One concerned caller put a turkey into the oven at 5:00 p.m. and didn’t turn the oven on until 2:00 a.m. Some asked about thawing a frozen turkey on the counter for several hours. Others wondered about leaving cooked turkey on the buffet all day long.

Unfortunately, we had to tell the concerned caller that she should throw the turkey away. That’s because it spent more than two hours in The Danger Zone (temperature range of 40 to 140 ° F). And we told other callers to never thaw a turkey on the counter or leave cooked turkey out for more than two hours.

The bottom line: It’s not safe to leave raw or cooked turkey (or any perishable food) at room temperature for more than two hours. Otherwise, you’re creating the perfect conditions for dangerous bacteria to multiply rapidly.

Don’t Roast the Turkey Overnight!

This year, a number of callers asked about roasting a turkey overnight at 200 to 250° F. We explained that this cooking method is just not safe. USDA does not recommend cooking meat and poultry at oven temperatures lower than 325 °F. Anything below that runs the risk of leaving turkey in The Danger Zone for too long.

Don’t Buy Your Fresh Turkey Too Early!

Many callers made the mistake of buying their fresh holiday turkeys too early. USDA recommends buying a fresh turkey no more than two days before you plan to cook it. Also, be sure to plan ahead when thawing a frozen turkey so it is not thawed too far in advance.

Don’t Forget the Food Thermometer!

We talked with many cooks who said they used visual clues (such as color) to determine whether the turkey was done. The problem is that you can’t tell by looking!

A whole turkey is cooked safely when it reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. To check the turkey, insert the food thermometer in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

For more information on cooking turkey or other holiday meats, check out these resources:

If you have any holiday food safety questions, feel free to contact us at the Hotline (1-888-674-6854 toll-free) or online at

Category/Topic: Health and Safety

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