By Dr. Anthony Policastro

Thanksgiving is a time to be together with family and friends. Over the last few years, it was also a time to be wary of getting an upper respiratory infection. COVID, flu and RSV were all culprits.

However, there are other things that can ruin a Thanksgiving meal. The presence of many people means we sometimes pay less attention to the kinds of things that can go wrong with food preparation.

Annual statistics in the U.S. show that about 1 out of every 6 people gets a food borne illness each year. That is about 48 million people. Of that number 128,000 are sick enough to be in the hospital. And of that group about 3,000 die.

That means that we have to pay attention to certain aspects of food preparation at busy times like Thanksgiving.

Turkeys themselves carry many illnesses. The good news is that these are killed by heating. Problems occur when meat thermometers do not assure that the internal temperature is high enough to kill the bacteria that cause illness. Meat thermometers are often used for barbecue grills. They should be part of the turkey preparation as well.

In a related vein, care needs to be taken to not have the raw turkey or its juices touch other foods that will not be cooked to a high enough temperature. There are many foods that get prepared. Sometimes that preparation happens simultaneously.

An example is a surface like a cutting board or a countertop. If a raw turkey is put there, it must be thoroughly cleaned before something else is prepared on that spot.

Hand washing after handling raw turkey is key to preventing cross contamination in other foods that may be served cold. Hand washing for the cook and food server is a must. It is the best method of preventing contamination.

Another Thanksgiving tradition is leaving food out for long periods. That allows people to pick on it all day. It also allows bacteria to grow on it.

Restaurants that have regulated kitchen facilities have a four hour rule. At home that rule is shortened to two hours. Under some circumstances even an hour should be the limit. Bacteria can double every 20 minutes. That is 8 times as many in one hour. And 64 times as many at the two hour point.

When I was at Andrews AFB we had two families admitted. They had made a split pea and ham hock soup. They let it sit out and it got cold. Four parents and six children wound up being hospitalized with Salmonella.

Thanksgiving meals should be fun for everyone. That is true both while they are eating and after the fact. Basic rules include keeping raw meats away from food that is not to be cooked. They include frequent hand washing for the food preparer, using a meat thermometer and chilling leftovers in a reasonable period of time. Those are all easy things to do.