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Arkansas food safety expert weighs in on Thanksgiving do’s and don’ts

Sophia Pappas
Checking temperatures, washing hands and avoiding cross-contamination are all recommended to help Thanksgiving run smoothly.

Kitchens across the state will be abuzz on Thursday as Arkansans try their hand at roasting traditional Thanksgiving turkeys. But, to avoid any post-Turkey Day sickness, food scientists are urging amateur chefs to take extra precautions.

Kristen Gibson directs the Center for Food Safety at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, and also serves as a professor of food science. She says perhaps one of her most controversial recommendations is simply not to stuff the bird.

“It just is too risky… you could end up with an overcooked turkey if you want your stuffing to be cooked all the way through, but if you want your turkey to be the right temperature, your stuffing may be the wrong temperature,” Gibson said. “Why risk it? Just don’t stuff your turkey.”

Gibson says turkeys should be cooked to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and recommends testing multiple different parts of the bird with a meat thermometer. But even if everything is cooked safely, she says potential danger lurks within leftovers.

“We all know that after we eat that big Thanksgiving dinner, some of us like to keep everything out for later grazing… leaving it at room temperature can be the perfect environment for bacteria to grow, so by cooling it quickly and in small portions you can prevent that from happening.”

Gibson says not washing raw turkeys before cooking helps to cut down on potential spread of bacteria. An alternative, she says, is to pat down birds with paper towels before cooking.

“By putting the turkey in your sink, you’re just creating a better environment for contamination. Also the water can spray off the turkey… and it can go onto other surfaces, utensils, whatever within your kitchen,” Gibson said.

Gibson also recommends frequent hand-washing, along with using specific cutting boards and utensils only for raw meat. Wearing gloves, she says, can also help cut down on potential cross-contamination.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.