The Threat to Turkey in the Time of COVID-19



Just when you start to think that life couldn’t get any more challenging in the time of the pandemic, 2020 turns out to be ‘the gift that keeps giving.’ And we heartily wish it would just stop. Not only has it felt like a full decade since shelter-in-place, quarantine, social distancing, mask wearing, and loss of human contact began – not to mention the shuttering of our favorite restaurants, movie theaters, and sports venues – it’s still not over. Despite our COVID-19 fatigue, we’re about to enter a new phase of seasonal despair: Thanksgiving. Yes, we can all find some reason to be thankful: if we’re writing this and you’re reading it, we’re in a good place and dodging the worst of the virus. It barely needs to be said that this is a strong reason for expressing gratitude right now. But the upcoming fall celebrations – whether Halloween or Thanksgiving – are certainly going to be different this year. Earlier this month we looked at how the pandemic is re-shaping our favorite ghoulish celebration, Halloween, in our Food Contact Surfaces article, ‘Ghosts, Goblins, and Global Food Safety: Trick-or-Treating in the Time of the Pandemic’ so this week let’s take a look at Thanksgiving specifically.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has recently come under fire for the strictness of his proposed Thanksgiving guidelines.

Rather than the traditional migration of family members to reunite around the Thanksgiving table, Newsom – along with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) – has recommended that social gatherings should be limited to no more than three households, be held outdoors, be socially distanced, and be kept to two hours or less in duration. Moreover, according to Newsweek, ‘[a]s much as possible, all food and drink should be served in disposable containers, while self-serve communal containers and other shared items should not be used at the gathering. […] Attendees may go inside to use restrooms as long as the restrooms are frequently sanitized. […And] the playing of any wind instruments (those that are played by the mouth, such as a trumpet or clarinet) is “strongly discouraged.”’(1)

So depending on your home state, this year’s celebration may be masked, quiet, hand sanitizer-scented, socially distanced, and barely long enough to recover from the turkey induced somnolence we discussed in our earlier article, ‘Surviving Thanksgiving Sleepiness: How Caffeine Combats Tryptophan Tiredness.’ While we understand the context of and rationale behind these guidelines in the Golden State, we must admit to being flummoxed as to how exactly they are to be enforced…

Those outside of the United States might question why Thanksgiving is so important to us and whether it’s really worth the risk of COVID-19 transmission, so here’s a primer.

Traditionally, this fall festivity dates back to 1621 when the Pilgrims gathered with Wampanoag Indians in Plymouth, MA, to celebrate a bounteous harvest that enabled their survival. The day was officially recognized as an American holiday in 1863 following a protracted letter-writing campaign by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale who corresponded with no fewer than four presidents before finally getting Abraham Lincoln’s official approval for the national day of gratitude. And apart from the central role of expressing thanks for health, wealth, and happiness, the other traditional element to the holiday – whether historically faithful or not – is the turkey centerpiece.

And astute readers may guess what’s coming next: in The Time of the Pandemic, this too is about to change. According to an article in the Washington Post, turkey farmers this year are in trouble. Despite a half century of increasing sales of Thanksgiving turkey, COVID-19 is threatening business due to a lower wholesale demand from restaurants and the desire for smaller turkeys to suit more modest family gatherings. To wit: ‘The shift in demand for this most seasonal of commercial animal proteins is causing havoc for turkey farmers, processors and retailers who typically solidify their plans months ahead of the holiday season.’(2) Bowman and Landes Turkeys of New Carlisle, OH, for example, raise 70,000 birds annually to meet the seasonal demand. According to Drew Bowman ‘40 percent of [the] business takes place in November and December for holiday meals. “We always get anxious before the holidays. It’s our busiest time of the year by far, with more work to be done, longer hours, and there are always things that can go wrong. […] There are a lot of unknowns for us right now.”’(3)

And for those of us in the contamination control field, the ‘unknowns’ spread way beyond the difficulties of staffing, processing deadlines, and profit margins, and extend to the implications of a manufacturing season newly fraught with challenges.

Indeed, the threat of turkey as a vector of food-borne pathogens is a very real entry point to discussing the dark shadows circling the periphery of this traditional celebration. Put bluntly, the inconvenient truth is that Thanksgiving has an ominous aspect, the vision of which we prefer to spare ourselves: the process of turning a living creature into a Thanksgiving table focal point. Suffice it to say that inasmuch as there is no truly humane way to kill a sentient creature who does not wish to die, there is equally no clean, sterile way to do it. And the introduction of potentially life-threatening contamination is inevitable in a process that sees upwards of 46 million individual birds killed each year. During slaughter, bacteria from the feathers and feet of the animals may be deposited on the flesh, along with fecal matter and the contents of the stomach. Furthermore, given the speed of the lines, equipment cannot be sterilized or even cleaned regularly, and operators also encounter time limitations when it comes to their own on-the-job hygiene considerations. We’ll leave the ramifications of that to your imagination. All in all, it is a messy business, the implications of which are too serious to ignore. According to an article in Science Direct, ‘spoilage [of the meat] can occasionally occur as a result of the growth and metabolic activities of specific types of bacteria. Psychrophiles, such as Pseudomonas, can grow at refrigerator temperatures and cause problems. [Other] pathogens of concern in turkey are Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Campylobacter, Listeria, and coliforms. Recently, Salmonella has been a major worry for consumers, and turkey carcasses do harbor the organism.’(4)

First identified by American veterinary surgeon Daniel E. Salmon in 1885, salmonellosis – the illness caused by exposure to salmonella bacteria – is distinctly unpleasant, with symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, and infection of the nervous system (spinal or brain fluid), the blood, bones, or joints. Even following recovery, long-term problems may remain after contact with the bacterium: reactive arthritis, for instance, has been reported in some patients and is long lasting and a challenge to treat successfully. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Campylobacter infection – also known as campylobacteriosis – shares some common symptoms with salmonellosis and is ‘most common bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the United States.’(5) Furthermore, long term conditions resulting from this infection include ‘irritable bowel syndrome, temporary paralysis, and arthritis. In people with weakened immune systems, such as those with a blood disorder, with AIDS, or receiving chemotherapy, Campylobacter occasionally spreads to the bloodstream and causes a life-threatening infection.’(6) Listeriosis, the illness caused by contact with the Listeria bacterium is ‘very serious for pregnant women, people older than 65 and […] can be fatal to unborn babies, newborns and people with weakened immune systems. [Moreover] Listeria bacteria can survive refrigeration and even freezing.’(7) Similarly, Staphylococcus, the bacterium most commonly associated with skin conditions such as boils, abscesses, and impetigo, can also manifest as fever, chills, and low blood pressure, and as mastitis ors toxic shock syndrome, making it especially dangerous for those with chronic conditions such as diabetes, vascular or lung disease, or cancer.

So given that the Thanksgiving turkey can be a vector of serious infection, what can be done to mitigate such food-borne poisonings?

At a processing level, Science Direct’s article notes that ‘[b]acterial problems can be minimized by following good production and manufacturing practices such as feeding clean feed and keeping the litter dry at the production site, using clean hauling equipment, filtering incoming air at the processing plant, monitoring the water supply, eviscerating carefully, chlorinating chiller water, insisting on good worker hygiene, and using an approved plant clean-up and sanitation program.’(8) But, of course, following such controls assumes the adoption of and adherence to safety measures such as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocol and current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs). Given the regularity with which turkey meat is subject to recall, especially in the weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving holidays, such adherence may be in question. After all, if best practices were always followed, we have to assume that the need for recalls of tainted product would be obviated.

Instead, the CDC offers seemingly regular food safety alerts regarding batches of turkey, a single incident of which in 2019 saw the recall of some 78,164 pounds of raw ground turkey products from Butterball. These products were distributed both on the wholesale and retail levels, with institutions such as hospitals, schools, and restaurants forced to ditch inventory to safeguard consumers. According to the CDC, ‘[p]ublic health investigators used the PulseNet system to identify illnesses that may have been part of this outbreak. PulseNet is the national subtyping network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories coordinated by CDC. DNA fingerprinting is performed on Salmonella bacteria isolated from ill people by using techniques called pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and whole genome sequencing (WGS). CDC PulseNet manages a national database of these DNA fingerprints to identify possible outbreaks. WGS gives a more detailed DNA fingerprint than PFGE. WGS performed on bacteria isolated from ill people showed that they were closely related genetically. This means that ill people in this outbreak were more likely to share a common source of infection.’(9)

And although we’ve called out Butterball, this is not the only company to run afoul of the regulators. Jennie-O Turkey Store Sales, LLC, a subsidiary of behemoth Hormel Foods Corp., for instance recalled ‘approximately 147,276 pounds of raw ground turkey products that may be associated with an illness outbreak of Salmonella,’ according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In a multi-state outbreak traced back to tainted packages of Jennie-O’s ground turkey products, 164 cases of salmonellosis were reported, prompting an investigation that involved not only the USDA but also the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the CDC, the Arizona Department of Health Services, and state public health and agriculture partners in a total of 35 states. In short, the active infections and potential for further outbreaks necessitated a significant investment of time and personnel to safeguard public health to the greatest extent possible.

On the consumer level, apart from following all of the safety guidelines for preparing a Thanksgiving turkey, what are your other options to ensure a healthy and safe holiday season?

Given that no-one wants to require hospitalization for a food-borne illness during the time of a pandemic, perhaps this is the year to examine other meal options? And there are plenty. How about pairing the traditional potatoes, squash, and your grandmother’s ‘somewhat unique’ greenbean-and-jello casserole (oh so beloved of everyone around the table…) with a plant-based alternative? There is, of course, the classic Tofurky Celebration Roast but if you’re not a fan of tofu, there are many other ways to go. From Gardein, headquartered in British Columbia, Canada, comes the turkey roast analog, stuffed with cranberries and rice, and Field Roast offers its Harvest Celebration dinner, both original and en croute.

Moreover, we do have to say that these options have come a long way from the days when a meatless meal – celebratory or otherwise – meant a white slab of tofu shivering under a goopy blanket of lumpy gravy. And so they should. In a time when we are actively seeking other sources of protein to sustain our global population – ones that work with the environment not in conflict with it – it behooves us to embrace all of our options. After all, the gore of turkey ‘processing,’ the ‘ick’ factor of insect-based proteins, and the sheer bizarreness of the jellyfish option or of beef ‘grown’ in space suggest that a hearty plant-based roast might be well worth trying. Besides, switching out the sleep-inducing turkey plate means you’ll actually be wide awake when it comes time for dessert. So who’s up for a big slice of pumpkin pie….?

Traditional or adventurous – what are your plans for the Thanksgiving meal? Are you ‘gobbling’ up a turkey or ‘flocking’ to an alternative option? We’d love to know your thoughts!


  3. ibid
  6. ibid



Leave a Reply