Preventive Measures Can Keep Families and Guests Safe from

Food-Related Illness and Cooking Fires

TRENTON, N.J. – As Thanksgiving quickly approaches, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and the New Jersey Department of Health (DOH) remind residents that simple measures can help prevent food-related illness and cooking fires during the holiday. Of particular concern are turkey fryers, which have become increasingly popular in recent years. Paired with the continued loss of natural gas service to some parts of the state as a result of Hurricane Sandy, this cooking method could be hazardous if not done properly.

“Thanksgiving is one of the most beloved holidays of the year, and while the day is meant to be joyous, it can also be a time for more fire-related accidents to occur as excitement leads to distraction,” said DCA Commissioner Richard E. Constable III. “We urge those gathering to celebrate the holiday to be aware of safe cooking practices, especially as more families use new methods – such as frying – to prepare their turkeys.”

Residents should also take measures to prevent food-related illness from spoiling the holiday. Cooking, transporting, serving and storing food at safe temperatures and using pasteurized products are important ways to avoid illness from bacteria such as E. coli or Salmonella, two of the more common but serious food-related illnesses.

“When you are entertaining and cooking your favorite holiday foods, take precautions to reduce the risk of food-borne illness to you and your family,” said Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd. “It is important to follow proper guidelines on preparing and serving food and to ensure that holiday dishes are cooked at the correct temperature and leftovers are always thoroughly reheated. The Department of Health has resources on its website to assist you in preparing meals safely.”

The DCA and its Division of Fire Safety advise people who use self-contained fryers to follow these precautions on Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday cooking season:

  • Always use turkey fryers outdoors at a safe distance from buildings and other flammable materials.
  • Never use turkey fryers in a garage or on a wooden deck.
  • Make sure the fryers are used on a flat surface to reduce accidental tipping.
  • Never leave the fryer unattended. Most units do not have thermostat controls. If you do not watch the fryer carefully, the oil will continue to heat until it catches fire.
  • Never let children or pets near the fryer even if it is not in use. The oil inside the cooking pot can remain dangerously hot hours after use.
  • To avoid oil spillover, do not overfill the fryer.
  • Use well-insulated potholders or oven mitts when touching pot or lid handles. If possible, wear safety goggles to protect your eyes from oil splatter.
  • Keep an all-purpose fire extinguisher nearby. Never use water to extinguish a grease fire. If the fire is manageable, use your all-purpose fire extinguisher. If the fire increases, immediately call the fire department.
  • Make sure the turkey is completely thawed and be careful with marinades. Oil and water do not mix, and water causes oil to spill over causing a fire or even an explosion hazard.

To safely defrost a turkey, place it in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave.  Never defrost turkey at room temperature. If you thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, place it in a large cooking dish on the bottom shelf to prevent raw juices from dripping onto other foods.  If juices leak onto food that will not be cooked, this contaminated food should be discarded.  If drippings spill onto refrigerator shelves, clean thoroughly with soap and water. Turkey in a leak-proof package may be defrosted in cold water. It is important to submerge the whole bird or cut-up parts in cold water, then change the water every 30 minutes.  If using a microwave, turkey must be cooked immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving.

Residents are advised to use established guidelines to ensure that holiday dishes are cooked to the correct temperature and leftovers are always thoroughly reheated.  For example, when cooking turkey, follow the directions on the package to determine length of cooking time with respect to how many pounds the turkey weighs.  It is important to use a food thermometer to make sure the meat is cooked properly.  Food thermometers usually cost less than $10 and can be bought at supermarkets and convenience stores.  The internal temperature of the thickest part of the breast or thigh should be at least 165° F (74 C).

Stuffing should be separated and cooked in another oven dish or on the stove top to avoid cross-contamination.  If you prefer to stuff your turkey, ensure that the stuffing is packed loosely just prior to roasting.  Then remove all stuffing immediately after cooking.  Cooked food should never be left out longer than 2 hours after it has been cooked.