November 14, 2019

Let’s Talk Turkey: Food Safety Along the Cold Chain at Thanksgiving

Written by Garret Weigel | Food Safety, HACCP, FSMA, Supply Chain

In our previous post about inventory management during Thanksgiving, we touched on the importance of turkey as the key food product most in need of careful advance planning to optimize stock. In this post, we’re taking a deeper dive into the safety issues turkey raises along the cold chain.


Every year, a significant number of consumers acquire foodborne illnesses during the holiday season. Just last year, 22 turkey slaughter operations and seven processing facilities were contaminated with a deadly strain of Salmonella. The CDC reported that 164 people across 35 states were confirmed infected and more than 60 admitted to hospitals, where at least one died.


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Faced with these statistics, grocery stores are under enormous pressure to ensure a safe Thanksgiving. All it takes is one scary headline to cause irreversible reputation and financial damage. Keeping turkey safe along the cold chain is therefore a main priority!


Partnerships Along the Cold Chain

The integrity of the cold chain is absolutely crucial from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Of course, grocery stores must make sure that their own operations are up to code and compliant with regulations. But in today’s complex network of distribution and storage, store managers should be concerned just as much with processing and transportation provided by their vendors. We all know that contamination can occur anywhere at anytime, and can jeopardize the safety of the products sold at retail.


That’s one reason it’s important to create and maintain a cold chain management strategy that coordinates all of your vendors along the cold chain, from suppliers to shippers. Treat them as true partners, and raise their expectations and standards as high as your own.


Vendors that are compliant usually employ the most recent technologies to ensure that their products always remain in their safe temperature ranges. Responsible vendors can provide real-time temperature updates, so you can monitor shipments while in transit. In this way, you know exactly what to expect at delivery. It’s all about building a forward-looking strategy that ends with concerns about the consumer’s safety.


Turkey in the Cold Chain

Both consumer expectations and agency enforcement are higher than ever. That means more risk while huge quantities of perishable and frozen foods are shipped as Thanksgiving approaches.


Take turkey, for example, the cornerstone of most Thanksgiving dinners. Tom is big business. In a typical year, U.S. producers raise 254 million turkeys, for a total value of $4.85 billion, while 52 million turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving Day, at an average cost of $1.20 per pound. From egg to plate, these birds go through an incredible journey before they end up in supermarkets.


turkeys in farm

Turkeys at a farm, waiting for their heyday on Thanksgiving.


The journey starts with turkey farmers, mainly in Minnesota, North Carolina and Arkansas, who raise the birds from the time they hatch into adulthood. From the farm, the turkeys are usually transferred to a food manufacturing facility where they are slaughtered, plucked, thoroughly cleaned, packaged, and labeled.


Because raising millions of turkeys in time for delivery on Thanksgiving Day is simply not feasible, it’s impractical to breed and slaughter them all within a month of the holiday. The solution? Freeze them: in fact, 90% of the turkeys sold for Thanksgiving Day were previously frozen.


This means that the vast majority of turkey inventory enters into the sub-zero cold chain from this point on. Frozen turkeys must be stored at proper temperatures in distribution warehouses, in shipping vehicles, in third-party cold storage facilities, and finally, in the grocer’s own freezer bin and delivery vans. Needless to say, this process requires plenty of coordination and communication to make sure turkeys arrive at consumer homes safely.


During the holiday season, suppliers must race against limited time to manage and meet huge consumer demand, as well as hit their sales targets. In the process, food quality and safety can be easily compromised. For example, storage freezers may be overloaded with turkeys, resulting in a temperature drop that may cause a drop in quality or a safety risk.


For the 10% of turkeys delivered fresh, a truck improperly sanitized before loading fresh produce could lead to cross contamination. Not to mention that “precooked” turkey may be undercooked without proper instructions, or turkey given antibiotics accidentally mislabeled “organic.” Because these scenarios could result in foodborne illness or consumer lawsuits, grocery stores should be concerned that food safety protocols are implemented by all of their vendors and partners along the cold chain.


An intact cold chain is crucial, with no gaps that can cause temperature excursions. For instance, truckers must be aware of the precise number and length of stops that are acceptable without interrupting distribution with periods of warming that could cause turkeys to thaw. Partnering with the right transportation providers can help mitigate these risks.


Federal Regulations and Inspections

The good news is the grocers get significant support from the federal government. Under regulations administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), turkeys produced, processed, packaged, and labelled across the supply chain must comply with a variety of rules designed to protect consumer health and safety:

  • No hormones have been approved for use in turkeys.
  • Additives are not allowed on fresh turkeys. However, if turkeys are “processed” (injected with a basting solution, ground, canned, cured, or smoked), additives such as MSG may be added but must be listed on the label.
  • Bone-in poultry products that are injected or marinated with a solution containing butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water plus spices, or flavor enhancers must be labeled as “basted” or “self-basted.”
  • The term "fresh" may ONLY be placed on raw poultry that has never been below 26 °F. Poultry held at 0 °F or below must be labeled "frozen" or "previously frozen." No specific labeling is required on poultry between 0 and 26 °F.
  • Product dating is not required. However, stores and processors may voluntarily date packages of turkey or turkey products.
  • Safe handling instructions are required on packages of all raw or partially cooked turkey products (fresh and frozen) packaged and labeled in federally and state inspected plants or in retail stores and sold to consumers.


Lets talk turkey

Safe food handling practices for Thanksgiving turkeys. Source: USDA


Federal food safety agencies also work to provide the public with essential guidelines about how to thaw, cook, and stuff turkeys safely. For example, the USDA’s FSIS partnered with the FDA and the CDC to create the website,, which provides easy access to a variety of important food safety tips for preparing a Thanksgiving dinner.


Federal inspections also protect consumers along the cold chain. According to USDA:


“All turkeys found in retail stores are either inspected by the USDA or by state systems which have standards equivalent to the federal government. Each turkey and its internal organs are inspected for evidence of disease.”


At the slaughtering plant, FSIS veterinarians observe the live birds, checking for any that may be sick or injured. After slaughter, each turkey carcass, along with its giblets, is inspected to check for disease or contamination. Turkeys are also randomly tested for E. coli and salmonella. Any questionable birds are pulled off the line for closer scrutiny. In addition, FSIS requires each turkey plant to have Sanitary Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs) to ensure that all equipment, employee hands, tools, machines, and packaging that touch turkeys or giblets are clean and protected from dangerous chemicals or materials.


To prevent foodborne hazards, FSIS also requires each turkey plant to implement a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan that requires employees to analyze the processes by which it produces whole turkeys, turkey parts, turkey giblets, and other turkey products. Each production procedure is studied to find any food safety hazard that is likely to occur, and identifies methods to eliminate that possibility. Finally, FSIS experts in food safety provide technical information to turkey plants about food hazards and how to prevent them.


Get to Know Your Turkey with Blockchain

As an interesting side note, blockchain is currently being tested to improve the turkey supply chain. In 2017, Cargill began selling blockchain-tracked turkeys in select supermarkets in 18 states. Customers can track their turkeys back to their farm of origin by sending a text or entering a code online. Farmers can add data to the blockchain to certify that a particular bird has been raised on their farm or that it has received a particular diet.


Also in 2017, IBM announced that it was introducing a blockchain project along with major food companies like Dole, Walmart, Tyson, Nestlé, and Kroger to address food safety issues, ideally to be able to pinpoint the source of any bad food that makes it into the marketplace. A grocery chain would be able to view all its suppliers when trying to locate the source of some bad turkey or Thanksgiving side dishes.


Given such abundant resources, grocers today can give thanks for the many controls available to provide the happiest holiday for their customers!


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