This week, millions of Americans will gather for Thanksgiving, bringing their families together for large traditional feasts. Few Thanksgiving spreads are complete without a turkey as the centerpiece, and that comes with a characteristic set of culinary hazards. Even outside of the turkey-centric autumn feast, the United States is the world’s largest producer of poultry and consumes considerably more chicken and turkey than beef or pork. The US produced 245 million turkeys with a total value of $3.88 billion in 2018, making turkeys important to the American economy. Food industry and government health officials are busy ensuring that this festive occasion and its trademark bird aren’t ruined by uninvited guests like Clostridium perfringens and Salmonella, so that we can all enjoy our turkeys in peace and safety.
The United States Department of Agriculture and various similar bodies across the US have strict rules in place to protect American poultry from contagions. Industrial food-handling practices mandate a variety of protective measures as well as frequent testing to keep pathogenic bacteria at bay, considerably reducing the incidence of food poisoning. Thermo Fisher Scientific offers several of these testing solutions, such as the Thermo Scientific™ SureTect™ PCR Assay System, to handle the high throughputs required for industrial and food-safety applications. Food safety is a paramount objective of the USDA and other government bodies, creating trust in the food system that Americans have come to rely upon and enjoy.
Even with these efforts, the Thanksgiving feast can still be dangerous if each household doesn’t take its own sensible precautions. Turkeys require specific handling both before and after cooking, which varies depending on whether the turkey is fresh, frozen, stuffed or un-stuffed. Handling turkey incorrectly creates an opportunity for pathogenic bacteria such as C. perfringens and Salmonella to grow in the meat and cause food poisoning. Incidence of food poisoning due to C. perfringens in particular spikes during the autumn and winter holidays. It is important to follow protective guidelines around when and how to thaw frozen meat, how to handle fresh meat, proper cooking temperatures and times, and safely storing leftovers. C. perfringens can grow in cooked foods left at room temperature for more than a few hours, so it is important to get leftovers into storage (fresh or frozen, as appropriate) within that time frame. Combining industrial-level safety enforcement with these sensible food-handling practices at home can keep these bacteria from spoiling both food and festivities for millions of Americans every year, and can also prevent many serious hospitalizations, particularly for the young and the immunocompromised.
Another, less obvious, holiday hazard is food fraud. Seasonal gatherings and feasts are prime occasions for seeking out more expensive meats. Meat not sold in whole form, such as stuffing meat and formed roasts, can be manipulated by unscrupulous vendors to pass off less expensive versions for their higher-priced cousins, because the meat’s overall shape is no longer indicative of its origin. Substituting less expensive chicken for turkey is one of the most common sorts of meat adulteration. Even meat that is in fact turkey may be making fraudulent claims about its point of origin, animal welfare status and more in order to charge a premium without paying the associated costs. Russian researchers who tested meat samples from Moscow supermarkets found that 92% of them (n = 53) contained DNA from species other than those declared on the label, and similar results frequently occur in other countries. This level of adulteration isn’t just a hazard to consumers’ wallets. Such widespread adulteration prevents people with allergies or other sensitivities to specific ingredients from making informed decisions about their own safety, leading to more frequent need for medical treatment, and worse. Food inspectors use cutting-edge technology such as next-generation sequencing (NGS) to check food items for adulteration and ensure that consumers are protected from food fraud, saving both their bank accounts and their health. Efforts to improve this technology and develop lower-cost and more accessible ways to prevent food fraud and protect consumers are ongoing, trying to keep one step ahead of would-be fraudsters.
To help promote information about how to have a safe and food-poisoning-free Thanksgiving, have a look at the FoodSafety.gov’s guidelines for seasonal food safety, the USDA’s rundown on how to handle turkey in ways that minimize bacterial growth, the Center for Disease Control’s holiday food safety tips, and this handy infographic.
For more information about Thermo Fisher Scientific’s food-testing offerings, have a look at our Food Microbiology Testing, Poultry Microbiology Testing and NGS Screening for Species Identification pages.
Post Author: Alyssa Gonzalez.