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Thermometers for Thanksgiving

24.nov.05, Douglas Powell (with files from Brae Surgeoner),

24.nov.05, Douglas Powell (with files from Brae Surgeoner),
At last year's annual Thanksgiving kick-off to the six-week orgy of shopping and food known as the holidays, one American recalled how, when dessert arrived, the family started passing around the newborn baby. As recounted on the Internet site,, in TotalFark, "Apparently, the baby had a pretty full diaper, and it was kinda leaking. He was passed to my uncle, and then passed to someone else. What my uncle didn't notice was that a little something rubbed off of the baby as he was passed. He looks down on his tie and sees what he believes is some pumpkin pie filling, so he scrapes it off, and takes a bite. He spent the rest of the night in the back yard throwing up. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!"
Making your friends and family sick through shared meals is a lousy way to spend the holidays. Besides handwashing and cleanliness, one of the best ways to protect guests (and yourselves, oh, and even your kids) is to use a meat thermometer.
Sales of meat thermometers, at least according to a salesthingy at one of the local kitchen gadget stores, skyrocket in the lead-up to Thanksgiving and Christmas. If true, it's good news that Canadians and Americans are getting the message to use a meat thermometer to ensure that the holiday bird is fully cooked.
But it may also mean that guesswork is used for cooking meat the other 363 days of the year.
And it's not just at home.
A graduate student and I were recently in Seattle, home of the infamous 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened some 600 and killed four, and put microbial food safety firmly in the minds of American media, lawyers and even the President.
After arriving at the hotel in Seattle and wandering around a bit, we ended up back at this rather posh hotel. Upon ordering burgers, we were asked how we would like them, "Rare, medium, well-done?" We looked at each other, and I asked if they ever used a meat thermometer. The waiter looked befuddled. We both ordered well-done.
A food thermometer is the best way to ensure that food has reached a sufficient internal temperature to kill pathogens. In 2001, a nation-wide study was commissioned by the Canadian Beef Information Council with primary meal preparers in the home to investigate food thermometer use and accuracy. Study results showed that only one-out-of-three respondents owned a food thermometer and those who owned one used it selectively—like when cooking a turkey. Supplementary data collected through focus group interviews conducted with Toronto women with families showed that the confident cooks believed that food thermometers were an unnecessary crutch. Those who were less confident appreciated the value of a thermometer when preparing a special meal (roast, turkey) but didn©ˆt use it for routine meals. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture very publicly began to urge consumers to use an accurate food thermometer when cooking ground beef patties because research demonstrated that the color of meat is not a reliable indicator the meat has reached a temperature high enough to destroy harmful bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7.
USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety at the time, Catherine Woteki, was quoted as saying, "Consumers need to know that the only way to be sure a ground beef patty is cooked to a high enough temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria that may be present is to use a thermometer." That was 1998.
By May 2000, USDA launched a national consumer education campaign to promote the use of food thermometers in the home. The campaign featured a cartoon thermometer called Thermy that proclaimed, "It's Safe to Bite When the Temperature is Right."
At the time, I remember saying, no one uses a meat thermometer to check the doneness of hamburgers. The idea of picking up a hamburger patty with tongs and inserting the thermometer in sideways was too much effort. I was wrong.
Shortly thereafter, I actually started doing it and discovered, not only was using a meat thermometer fairly easy, it made me a better cook. No more extra well-done burgers to ensure the bugs that would make me sick were gone. They tasted better.
Food safety nerds like me still have passionate debates about the best thermometer and how to properly use one, but just getting in the habit of using a meat thermometer is a good start.
At least it's better than the method another poster to TotalFark used, described below:
"My sister wanted to cook cornish game hens and came home from the store with full sized chickens. She figured they were the same thing. She called our mother and asked how long to cook cornish game hens. My mom told her it to cook them for an hour or two. As my sister often does, she let me taste test it and waited long enough for me to start vomiting. She then put the chickens back in the oven for a few more hours and enjoyed a late dinner." This is an unreliable (and unpleasant) method.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph. The Food Safety Network's national toll-free line for obtaining food safety information is1-866-50-FSNET (1-866-503-7638) and further information is available at < . For pictures of mere mortals and/or food safety nerds actually using a meat thermometer, visit the commentary section of Visit our other blogs at,, and A turkey handling factsheet is available at: