Food safety during the holidays

“How long can a turkey be kept in the freezer?”

This question is often heard by the food safety specialists answering USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline. Although the optimum freezing time for quality — best flavor and texture — is one year, consumers are usually surprised to learn that, from a safety standpoint, frozen turkeys may be kept indefinitely in a freezer.

Callers ask hundreds of other questions about turkeys — from the time they are hatched on the farm until they make it home to the freezer.

What Is turkey?

A turkey is a large, widely domesticated North American bird with white plumage and a bare, wattled head and neck. The name “turkey” was originally applied to an African bird now known as the guinea fowl, which was believed to have originated in Turkey. When the Europeans came upon the American turkey, they thought it was the same bird as the African guinea fowl, and so gave it the name “turkey,” although the two species are quite distinct.

Purchase and handling

Although turkey is enjoyed year round, the peak time for buying, cooking and storing whole turkeys is the November and December holiday season. This is the time we see a large increase in the number of whole turkeys for sale in our local grocery stores. Do not buy fresh pre-stuffed turkeys. If not handled properly, any harmful bacteria that may be in the stuffing can multiply very quickly.

After purchase, frozen turkeys should be placed in a freezer until ready to be thawed. There are three safe ways to thaw a turkey:

• Refrigerator — It is best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. A large frozen item like a turkey requires at least a day (24 hours) for every four to five pounds of weight. Once thawed in the refrigerator, it can remain refrigerated for a day or two before cooking. Turkey thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.

• Cold Water — This method is faster than refrigerator thawing, but requires more attention. The turkey should be in leak-proof packaging or a plastic bag. Submerge the turkey in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. It will take about 30 minutes per pound to completely thaw a whole turkey. After thawing, cook it immediately. Turkey thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing.

• Microwave — After microwave thawing, cook the turkey immediately because some areas of the turkey may become warm and begin to cook. Holding partially-cooked food is never recommended because any bacteria present would not have been destroyed and may have reached temperatures at which bacteria can grow. Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked before refreezing.

Raw turkey skin color is off white to a cream color. The color under the skin can range from pink to lavender or blue, depending on the amount of fat just under the skin. Although there is normally very little distinguishable difference in the quality and nutrition of turkeys, understanding labeling definitions can help consumers make informed decisions and choose a turkey that best meets their particular needs.

So, if you have questions about preparing Turkey for your holiday meal, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at: (888) 674-6854 or send e-mail to mphotline.fsis@usda.gov. The Hotline is open on Thanksgiving Day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Eastern Time, but closed on other federal government holidays.

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