Food safety: Stuffing the turkey…with disease!

You want to stuff what?! In where?! Source, Flickr creative commons, (C) donjd2

This post was originally posted at Mind the Science Gap on Nov. 22, 2012.

If you’re reading this from the hospital, it may be too late. If you’re feeling a bit queasy after a big meal of turkey, stuffing, and veggies, you may want to eat an antacid before continuing to read.

Stuffing and Disease

Cooking a stuffed turkey has been linked to food-borne illness. The problem stems, not from the inherent danger of stuffing, but from the cross-contamination of stuffing with turkey juices. If the now-potentially-bacteria-laden stuffing does not reach the same internal temperature as the meat (165 degrees F), there is a risk that bacteria from the meat may survive the cooking process.

In 2009, Greig and Ravel analyzed internationally reported foodborne outbreak data for source. 105 outbreaks were attributed to turkey and other poultry (not including chicken) between 1988 and 2005. (It is important to remember in this instance that an outbreak of disease means that more cases are reported than normally expected for that time frame.) These outbreaks included Clostridium perfringens (botulism’s less deadly cousin), Campylobacter (which causes diarrhea, sometimes bloody), E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes (the causative agent of listeriosis, one of the nastier food-borne illnesses. 20-30% of cases result in death), multiple types of salmonella and staph, and norovirus. (I can ensure you that there is no faster way to ruin a holiday than to infect your whole family with norovirus. Or listeriosis. )

Stuffing is one of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving. It’s especially best (in my humbly carnivorous opinion) swimming in turkey juices. (Or chicken. I’ve been known to roast a chicken as an excuse to make stuffing.) Now, how does one accomplish this without risking life and gastrointestinal happiness?

How to Prevent It (Better late than never?)

Stuffing the turkey results in a longer cooking time, in order to completely cook the bird and the stuffing. The stuffing needs to reach the same internal temperature as the meat itself (again, 165 F), since it has been exposed to raw turkey.

Generally, the USDA recommends:

  • Do not stuff turkeys that will be fried, smoked, or grilled.
  • If meat or fish (i.e. oysters, poultry) is included in the stuffing recipe, cook those ingredients to the proper temperature before mixing them into the stuffing.
  • Keep the stuffing moist (the better to kill bacteria) and stuff loosely (3/4 cup stuffing to 1 lb of bird).
  • Cook immediately after stuffing.
  • Use a food thermometer to check the turkey (and stuffing) for done-ness.
  • Let the turkey rest for 20 minutes after pulling it out of the oven.
  • Refrigerate all leftovers within two hours of cooking.
  • Eat leftovers within 3-4 days of cooking.

An easy way to enjoy your stuffing with the delightful flavor of poultry without the surprise addition of salmonella is to fully cook your turkey and stuffing separately.  You can then either put the stuffing in the bird cavity after both have been cooked, or pour turkey drippings over it.

If you do decide to stuff your turkey, this handy article can help you determine the appropriate suture technique to use on your turkey.


Everyone (especially the college students) loves Thanksgiving leftovers. If you do stuff your turkey, remove the stuffing from the bird before putting it in the fridge or freezer. Keep leftovers cold, and eat within 3-4 days.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Mmm turkey. Source, Flickr creative commons, (C) orchidgalore

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s