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How to Avoid a Dangerous Turkey

Cooks need to be aware that about 13 percent of raw U.S. turkeys carry salmonella, a bacteria that can produce severe flu-like symptoms if the bird is not thoroughly cooked or if raw turkey is allowed to contaminate kitchen surfaces.

Government data shows the rate of salmonella contamination in raw turkey is higher than for other raw meat. Samples collected by the U.S. Agriculture Department found salmonella contamination rates of 3 percent for ground beef and 9 percent for chicken. In tests of chickens, some free-range birds turned out to have higher salmonella rates than factory-raised fowl.

The National Turkey Federation, a group representing turkey producers, says the new salmonella data show a 30 percent drop in the rate of contamination. Three years ago, a USDA survey of turkey plants found 19.4 percent of raw birds carried the bacteria. ?We?re doing everything we can to assure the safety of our products,? says a turkey industry spokesman. Salmonella is one of the most common U.S food diseases, causing an estimated 1.3 million illnesses each year. While most healthy adults recover in a few days from the diarrhea and vomiting that typically accompany salmonella poisoning, the elderly and those with chronic diseases can suffer more serious effects. About 500 Americans die each year from salmonella, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. ?Some plants are marketing large numbers of contaminated turkeys. It is especially troubling that USDA won?t tell the public the contamination rates at the various plants,? says Caroline Smith De Waal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group has petitioned the USDA to publish its salmonella data on the Internet so consumers can choose what brand of turkey, ground beef or chicken to buy. ?The petition is under review,? says a USDA spokeswoman.

Salmonella is destroyed by high temperatures, so a turkey should be cooked to a temperature of at least 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooks should avoid placing uncooked turkeys on kitchen counters and cutting boards, and should clean surfaces thoroughly once the bird is in the oven. A spray bottle filled with a mixture of water and a little liquid bleach is good at killing the bacteria. Use a paper towel to wipe up, rather than a sponge that will be used again later. It?s especially important to wash your hands after handling any raw meat. It?s also a good idea to thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator for several days, rather than leaving it out.

Salmonella can be transmitted through dressing that is cooked inside the bird?s cavity, so it?s safer to prepare it in a separate pan, says National Press Club Chef Jim Swenson. ?You?re mixing eggs with raw blood inside the turkey, which is just not a good idea.?

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