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Turkey Tips Step 1: Shopping for Your Feast

Posted by Chris Bernstein, Food Safety Education Staff, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA in Initiatives Health and Safety
Nov 19, 2014

-You’re certain you’ve thought of everything to make this year’s Thanksgiving meal a flawless success.

You’ve assigned your quarrelsome family members who passionately root for rival football teams to seats on opposite ends of the dinner table. You’re prepared to cook all of your guests’ favorite holiday dishes, and after years of practice, you finally feel like you’ve perfected the delicate art of carving a turkey. Yes, this year will be different. You won’t have to order a pizza and eat it with lumpy gravy like you did after last year’s cooking disaster! But while you may think you’ve thought of absolutely everything for the perfect Thanksgiving meal, you may have neglected some of the most important steps – those involving food safety.

Unsafe handling and undercooking of turkeys can lead to serious foodborne illness, but the USDA is here to offer a few tips so you have a delicious, safe holiday feast. Over the next two weeks, we will share several food safety steps that you should follow. 

The first step to hosting a safe holiday feast is choosing your bird. Picking out the perfect turkey doesn’t mean just choosing the plumpest one in your grocery store. To find the perfect turkey for you and your guests, read the labels. These are the most common ones, which are regulated by the USDA:

Temperature Labels  

  • Fresh: This means the turkey has never been chilled below 26 °F. You should check the “sell by” or “use by” date to make sure your “fresh” turkey truly is fresh. If you buy this bird, be sure you purchase it only one or two days before cooking it.  
  • Frozen: Any turkey that has ever been cooled to zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower is labeled “frozen.” Most turkeys sold in the United States are frozen; you should freeze this turkey at home if purchased more than a week in advance.

Raising and Processing Labels  

  • Natural: The turkey has been minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients or added coloring.  
  • Kosher: This denotes that the turkey was raised only on grain and was not given antibiotics. Such turkeys are soaked in salt brine and processed and inspected under the supervision of a rabbi.  
  • Free Range: This label means the birds have continuous, free access to the out-of-doors for more than 51% of their lives. For more information, visit 
  • Organic: An organic seal means producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors. These requirements are set by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

 And as always, keep your raw bird separate from any other items in your shopping cart to prevent cross-contamination. Check back soon for more tips on how to make your holiday a delicious and safe feast.

For More Information

If you have more questions, visit Let’s Talk Turkey to learn how to safely plan, select, thaw, and prepare a turkey or check out these turkey resources at  Stay tuned this month for more blogs about how you can make your holiday happy and healthy for everyone at the table. 

 If you have additional questions about cooking a turkey call, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at available from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, English or Spanish. 

 If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline will be open from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time. You can also ask questions of “Karen,” FSIS’ virtual representative, 24/7 at  Visit for questions in Spanish.

Category/Topic: Initiatives Health and Safety