June 6, 2024

Food Poisoning from Turkey

Turkey is a popular dish, especially during the holiday season. However, when not handled or cooked properly, turkey can pose a severe risk of food poisoning. Understanding how long to keep food and taking necessary precautions to ensure it is safe to eat can help you avoid the unpleasant and potentially dangerous consequences of food poisoning from turkey.

cooked turkey on plate
  • Cooked or raw turkey shouldn’t be at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Improper storage allows bacteria to multiply quickly, increasing the risk of illness.
  • Turkey can harbor harmful bacteria. Raw turkey is especially risky because bacteria can multiply rapidly. Improper handling, storage, or cooking can lead to contamination and food poisoning.
  • Practice safe food handling to avoid illness including proper thawing, hygiene, and cooking to safe internal temperatures (165°F). Leftovers should be refrigerated within 2 hours and consumed within 3-4 days.

How Long Can Turkey Sit Out?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), turkey should not remain at room temperature for more than two hours. This guideline applies to all forms of turkey, including whole turkeys, sliced turkey, turkey cold cuts, and ground turkey. When temperatures are above 90 °F, the time limit is just one hour. These time limits apply to both raw and cooked turkey. 

If turkey is left out for longer than the recommended time, it should be discarded to prevent the risk of food poisoning. During the holiday season, when people prepare large quantities of food, it’s easy to lose track of how long turkey has been sitting out. Be mindful of the time and ensure your turkey is refrigerated or consumed within a safe time frame.

When thawing a frozen turkey, do so in the refrigerator over a few days, not on the countertop at room temperature. Leaving turkey to thaw on the counter can cause the outer layers to reach temperatures in the “danger zone” (between 40–140 °F) while the inside remains frozen. This creates an ideal environment for bacteria to multiply rapidly, increasing the risk of food poisoning.

Why Is Turkey a Risk for Food Poisoning?

Turkey, like chicken and other poultry, is a high-risk food for bacterial contamination. The moist, nutrient-rich environment of turkey meat provides an ideal breeding ground for harmful bacteria. Improper handling, storage, or cooking can allow these bacteria to multiply quickly, increasing the risk of food poisoning.

Several factors during the food handling process can contribute to bacterial growth in turkey:

  • Thawing turkey at room temperature for too long – Thawing turkey on the counter can lead to bacterial growth.
  • Not washing hands, utensils, or surfaces after handling raw turkey – Bacteria from raw turkey can spread to other foods, surfaces, and utensils if you do not follow proper hygiene practices.
  • Storing turkey at temperatures between 40–140 °F, known as the “danger zone” – Bacteria multiply most rapidly in this temperature range, so it’s crucial to keep turkey out of this zone.
  • Undercooking turkey or not reheating it to a safe internal temperature – Consuming undercooked or leftover turkey that has not been heated to safe temperatures can lead to food poisoning.

Cross-contamination is another significant factor in the spread of bacteria from turkey to other foods. This can occur when raw turkey comes into contact with other ingredients, such as fruits, vegetables, or cooked foods. Always use separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils for raw turkey and other foods to avoid cross-contamination. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling raw turkey. Clean and sanitize any surfaces or utensils that have come into contact with the raw meat.

Bacteria That Can Grow on Turkey

Several types of bacteria can contaminate turkey and cause food poisoning:

  • Salmonella – Salmonella is one of the most common causes of food poisoning from poultry, including turkey. Symptoms of Salmonella infection include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, which typically appear 12–72 hours after consuming contaminated food. In severe cases, Salmonella can lead to hospitalization and even death, particularly in young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.
  • Campylobacter – Campylobacter is another bacteria that can cause food poisoning from turkey. Symptoms of Campylobacter infection include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, which usually appear 2–5 days after consuming contaminated food.
  • Clostridium perfringens – Clostridium perfringens is a bacteria that can grow on turkey and other poultry, particularly when the meat is cooked in large quantities and kept at unsafe temperatures. Symptoms of Clostridium perfringens infection include diarrhea and abdominal cramps, which typically appear 8–12 hours after consuming contaminated food.

Signs That Turkey Has Gone Bad

Knowing how long to keep food and the signs of spoiled turkey can help you avoid consuming contaminated meat. You can identify spoiled turkey by checking the texture, appearance, and smell. Though you should never taste spoiled food, flavor is another key indicator of spoilage.

Bacteria That Can Grow on Turkey

  • Slimy or sticky surface – If the turkey feels slimy or sticky to the touch, it’s a sign that bacteria have begun to grow on the surface of the meat.
  • Discoloration, such as grayish or greenish spots – Discoloration on the surface of the turkey can indicate bacterial growth or spoilage.


  • Strong, off-putting odor – If the turkey has a strong, unpleasant odor, it has likely gone bad.
  • Sour or sulfuric smell – A sour or sulfuric smell can also indicate that the turkey has spoiled.


  • Sour, bitter, or rancid taste – If you taste the turkey and it has a sour, bitter, or rancid flavor, spit it out immediately and discard the rest of the meat.
  • If the turkey tastes off – It is best to err on the side of caution and not consume it to avoid the risk of food poisoning.

Notable Outbreaks of Food Poisoning From Turkey

Several widespread outbreaks of food poisoning from turkey have occurred in recent years, highlighting the importance of proper handling, storage, and cooking of turkey to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses:

  • In December 2018, Jennie-O Turkey Store Sales Inc. recalled approximately 164,210 pounds of raw ground turkey products due to possible Salmonella contamination. The recall was initiated after the CDC and USDA linked the ground turkey products to a multistate outbreak of Salmonella infections.
  • In April 2021, the Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a public health alert for approximately 211,406 pounds of raw ground turkey products linked to a Salmonella Hadar outbreak. The outbreak sickened 28 people across 12 states, resulting in two hospitalizations.
  • From November 2017 to March 2019, a Salmonella outbreak linked to raw turkey products sickened 356 people across 42 states, resulting in 132 hospitalizations and one death. The outbreak was traced to several raw turkey products from multiple sources, highlighting the need for comprehensive food safety measures throughout the supply chain.

These outbreaks serve as a reminder that turkey food poisoning can have serious consequences. Proper food safety practices must be followed at every step, from production to consumption.

Tips for Storing and Consuming Turkey Safely

To minimize the risk of food poisoning from turkey, follow these guidelines:

  • Cook turkey to a safe internal temperature of 165 °F. To check, use a food thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat, keeping the tip away from bones.
  • To avoid cross-contamination, keep raw turkey separate from other foods. Use separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils for raw turkey and other ingredients.
  • Wash hands, utensils, and surfaces thoroughly with soap and water after handling raw turkey.
  • Refrigerate cooked turkey within two hours of cooking and consume within 3–4 days.
  • Store raw turkey in the refrigerator for no more than 1–2 days before cooking.
  • Thaw frozen turkey in the refrigerator, not at room temperature on the counter. Allow approximately 24 hours of thawing time for every 4–5 pounds of turkey.
  • When reheating leftover turkey, ensure it reaches an internal temperature of 165 °F throughout.
  • If you’re unsure whether a turkey product is safe, it’s best to discard it to avoid the risk of food poisoning. 

Following proper food safety practices allows you to enjoy your favorite turkey dishes without risking food poisoning. However, if you suspect you contracted a foodborne illness from consuming contaminated turkey, you should seek medical attention and report the incident to your local health department.

Contact Keep Food Safe to Connect With an Attorney

If you believe the turkey contamination resulted from negligence by a food producer, restaurant, or other food service establishment, you may be entitled to compensation for your illness and related expenses. Contact Keep Food Safe so we can connect you with a food poisoning lawyer who can explain your legal options for recovering compensation. 

Remember, another person’s negligence should never compromise your health and well-being. You have the right to hold responsible parties accountable for their actions. By raising awareness about the risks of food poisoning from turkey and advocating for better food safety practices, we can work together to reduce preventable illnesses and protect public health.

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