For the third year in a row, public health officials are warning people not to eat romaine lettuce. In this current outbreak, lettuce traced to the Salinas Valley was found to contain a dangerous strain of the E. coli bacteria that has made at least 67 people sick in California and 18 other states. And everyone should heed this warning because the strain, 0157:H7, is a particularly nasty one that can cause kidney failure and even death.
It’s also the same strain that was making people sick in 2017 and 2018, a worrisome trend that underscores the danger in the FDA’s decision to put off rules requiring microbial testing of the water that farmers use to irrigate their produce. But tossing out suspected greens won’t guarantee that everything else in the Thanksgiving meal is safe. Indeed, even in the absence of any current turkey recalls, all birds should be treated as if they are armed — with salmonella, campylobacter or E. coli — and dangerous to your health.
Slaughterhouse inspections regularly turn up these bacteria, which are found in raw poultry and other food sources. Collectively, they cause millions of cases of food poisoning each year. But we only hear about a recall related to a bacterial-driven outbreak when the contamination is traced directly back to a source, which is not an easy task.
An outbreak that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service detected last November led poultry company Jennie-O to recall more than 300,000 pounds of raw ground turkey that was suspected of containing an uncommon and virulent bacteria called salmonella Reading. This bacteria has been found in samples of other turkey products, including whole birds and turkey-enriched pet food.
And by the way, though the outbreak investigation ended in April, salmonella Reading hasn’t gone away. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published last week, new cases continue to crop up. “Evidence suggests that this outbreak strain has become widespread within the turkey production industry, warranting continued preventive actions to reduce contamination.” (Nor should you assume your expensive organic turkey is safer than conventional turkeys when it comes to bacteria that can make people sick, given that they may be processed in the same slaughterhouse.)
Last year’s outbreak prompted calls for more transparency in reporting contamination at slaughterhouses, including a proposed change in policy to define antibiotic-resistant salmonella as an adulterant in poultry products and thus subject to mandatory recall, but few concrete steps have actually been taken since then.
So if you’re planning on cooking Thanksgiving dinner yourself, it would be best to play it safe and assume that the raw turkey in the fridge awaiting its moment in the oven harbors bacteria that could make people sick. That means making sure the bird is properly cooked, killing the bacteria in the process. The meat should reach an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees, which may require investing in a reliable meat thermometer.
Another safety tip from professionals is to avoid washing the bird before cooking. It may sound counterintuitive; washing promotes good hygiene, right? That is certainly true when it comes to hands and cooking implements and surfaces, so keep doing it. But not for bacteria-clad turkey or chicken.
Food safety experts say the admonition to wash poultry before cooking it — an instruction that has been passed down from generation to generation and repeated in countless recipes — is contradicted by research on how bacteria are transmitted. Earlier this year, the USDA released the results of an observational study of poultry preparation habits that found 60% of participants who washed raw poultry ended up with contaminated sinks, increasing the risk for cross contamination of fruits and vegetables also washed in the sink. Even more alarming, 14% of those sinks remained contaminated even after being cleaned.
Yuck. That’s an unappetizing Thanksgiving thought. But as long as we’re living with E. coli and salmonella, you’ll need to keep an eye out for produce and poultry recalls. And remember, don’t wash your turkey, but do cook it thoroughly.