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Share the Love, not the Bacteria

Posted by Marianne Gravely, MS, Senior Technical Information Specialist, FSIS in Health and Safety
Nov 14, 2018
People gathering around Thanksgiving table
People gathered around Thanksgiving table. Remember, when hosting a potluck dinner this Thanksgiving, a few simple food safety steps can keep your guests from getting sick.

At this time of year, many community groups, volunteer organizations, work places and other groups celebrate Thanksgiving with a potluck meal. When cooking for a large group, it is important to keep in mind the needs of your guests. Do any of your guests have food allergies or dietary restrictions? Could some be at higher risk for foodborne illness because they may be transplant recipients, cancer patients or diabetics? Pregnant women and seniors are also at higher risk.

In a recent USDA consumer observation study, 34 percent of participants reported that someone in their home was at an increased risk for foodborne illness. Whether you are cooking for a group of friends or preparing a holiday meal for those less fortunate, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has tips to make your meal a safe one.

Location, Location, Location

All big events start with a plan. In this case, start with where the meal will be prepared, who will be cooking and serving, and who will be the guests.

  • Will the meal be prepared onsite, or will the volunteers prepare the food at their homes?
  • Don’t forget to check with your local health department; some public events require health department certification.

Once you know how many guests you are feeding, you can determine the menu.

  • If you are serving turkey, allow a half pound of turkey per person.
  • Most of the food can be prepared 3-4 days in advance.
  • Refrigerate the food immediately so that it cools down to a safe temperature (40°F), quickly.
  • Don't overfill the refrigerator. Cool air must circulate to keep food safe.

The day of the event, you’ll want to start with a clean kitchen and serving area.

  • Campylobacter and Salmonella, bacteria found in poultry products, have been shown to survive on countertops and other kitchen surfaces for up to four and 32 hours, respectively. This can pose a health risk if the contaminated surfaces are not adequately cleaned and sanitized.
  • Wipe down your counters and tables with hot soapy water. Have plenty of wash cloths, paper towels and dish towels available.

Prepping: In Advance and on the Big Day

Recent USDA research found that participants failed to wash their hands properly 97 percent of the time when cooking! Without proper handwashing, well-intentioned cooks, servers and guests can quickly spread bacteria around your meal. Hand washing should always include five simple steps:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel.

The study also found that a majority of consumers spread bacteria to at least one kitchen item or surface while preparing a meal – and 48 percent contaminated spice containers! Be sure to wash your hands before and after handling raw turkey, especially when seasoning the bird. Wipe down and sanitize anything in the kitchen that may have come into contact with raw meat and poultry. Use separate sets of cutting boards and knives – one for raw meat or poultry and one for produce or ready-to-eat foods.

Did you prepare food in advance?

  • Reheat all cooked foods to an internal temperature of 165°F before serving.
  • If your cooks are delivering the food already heated, you will need warming trays or chafing dishes to keep it hot.
  • If food is being prepared in a central kitchen, you’ll need to plan out the cooking so that everything is ready at the same time, or have warming trays and chafing dishes available to keep food hot while the rest is being prepared.

Is the Time and Temperature Right?

Have a food thermometer available to make sure the food is being held and served at a safe temperature.

  • Unfortunately, in the USDA study, 88 percent of participants did not cook their poultry to the safe internal cooking temperature of 165°F. Turkey is safe to eat when it has reached an internal temperature of 165°F in the breast, thigh and wing. Casseroles should be heated to 165°F as well.
  • All foods must be held above 140°F throughout service. If you don’t have any way to keep hot foods hot, be sure to finish serving and refrigerate any leftovers within two hours.
  • If your holiday meal has an extended serving time, consider putting out smaller portions and leaving the rest in the oven or refrigerator to stay at a safe temperature. After an hour and a half or so, replace with a fresh portion.
  • Once the meal is over, if the food has been held at a safe temperature, you can pack it up in shallow containers and give to the guests to take home, refrigerate or freeze. If food was left out at room temperature for two hours or more, the leftovers should be discarded.

For more information, see Cooking for Groups: A Volunteer's Guide to Food Safety.

If you have questions about your Thanksgiving dinner, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert. You can also chat live at, available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English and Spanish. If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the Meat and Poultry Hotline is available from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time.

Category/Topic: Health and Safety