Karim Doumar

How to protect yourself from salmonella this Thanksgiving

This story was first published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Thanksgiving is just a few days away, and I regret to inform you that there's a multidrug-resistant salmonella outbreak running rampant in the nation's poultry industry.

I know that's daunting, but something to be thankful for this year is the ProPublica reporters who spent the past several months uncovering that the outbreak never abated and looking into how fragmented food safety rules left the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration ill-equipped to stop it. I know I am.

I don't bring up salmonella to scare you (most of the ProPublica reporters who ate poultry before working on this story still eat poultry) but to prepare you. While the food regulatory system has failed to stop the rise of infantis, a salmonella strain that doctors find difficult to treat, there are a lot of steps you can take to protect yourself.

For what it's worth, salmonella tends to be found way more frequently in chicken than whole turkey, and the tips below apply to both birds (as well as just about any other) you wish to eat.

Check Your Turkey Using ProPublica's Chicken Checker.

Your turkey's packaging should come with a P-number. Usually, it's found on the USDA's mark of inspection or printed near a use-by date, inspection stamp or price tag. ProPublica created a searchable database that shows the salmonella records of the nation's poultry plants. Enter in the P-number on your package, and you can see the salmonella rate where the poultry came from.

If you find your bird came from a place with instances of high-risk salmonella, that doesn't mean you ought to throw it away. It just means you should be extra careful when you prepare it.

As a side note, we are not finished reporting on salmonella in poultry. If you'd like to help, please fill out the form below the Chicken Checker to share your bird's P-number and where you bought it. That'll help our reporting on the poultry supply chain.

Do Not Rinse Your Turkey.

We see this all the time. You unwrap your turkey and put the whole thing under water. I get it. Poultry is slimy, and your elders taught you to do this. But if there's salmonella on your turkey, rinsing is a great way to splash the bacteria onto other surfaces in your kitchen, where you'll least expect it, the USDA says. That's called cross-contamination. Eliminating it, you'll find, is a theme here.

Britanny Saunier, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, told me that rinsing poultry is a habit that has been passed down from a time when the birds came from your own yard or a local farm and cleaning literal dirt off them was in order. There's no need to rinse a processed bird, though.

Wash Your Hands Again and Again and Again (With Soap)!

Remember how in March 2020 everyone was relearning how to wash their hands for the full CDC-recommended 20 seconds and nervously joking about how touching your face will kill you? Now carry that spirit into the holiday. Before you start cooking, wash your hands. Then wash them again, maybe after every step. Most importantly, you should always wash your hands in between touching raw meat and anything else in your kitchen.

Some people prefer to get gloves. I find that to be annoying because you have to keep taking them on and off to prevent cross-contamination. But whatever keeps you most vigilant and your kitchen cleanest is the way to go.

Actually, Just Wash Everything (With Soap)!!

Salmonella bacteria are resilient little germs. They can survive hours to days on surfaces and cannot be killed by drying or freezing, according to the FDA. If you touch raw turkey, wash your hands immediately after. But let's say you forget and go get something out of your fridge. It's probably worth disinfecting the fridge handle now. And the faucet you used to wash your hands. Did you prep your turkey on the counter? Clean that. Use a cutting board? Clean that, too. Check a recipe on your phone? You get the idea.

Keep Your Raw Turkey Separate From Everything Else.

Don't use the same cutting boards for preparing raw turkey and vegetables without a thorough cleaning in between. As much as possible, minimize the surfaces and other food that raw poultry comes into contact with. Don't, for example, put cooked meats on the same plate they sat on raw.

Get a Meat Thermometer (or Several).

Salmonella — even the most dangerous strains — perishes at 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and a meat thermometer is the only surefire way to tell if your poultry has reached that temperature. The USDA recommends putting the device in the deepest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh and the innermost part of the wing. White meat cooks faster than dark, so those three parts will all hit 165 degrees at different times during the cooking process, but they all do need to reach 165 before you should eat your bird.

Some people like their turkeys cooked hotter than 165 (especially the breasts, which are tougher). That's a personal call. ProPublica doesn't care how hot your bird is, as long as every millimeter of it is hotter than 165.

(ProPublica data reporter Irena Hwang also really wants me to remind you about the amazing power of letting your meat rest after you've finished cooking it. Just not for too long.)

There's really no good way to eyeball whether your turkey is cooked well enough to have killed the salmonella. Just get the thermometer; you can even bring one as a gift for whoever's hosting you.

Be Very Careful With Stuffing and Marinades.

Stuffing can have its own salmonella from ingredients like raw eggs, and it can get contaminated from the bird itself if you stuff it. It also can cause your turkey to cook unevenly. It's safer and easier to cook your stuffing separately. If you insist on having your stuffing cook inside your bird, make sure to use your meat thermometer to check its temperature, too — again, 165 is the salmonella-killing temperature — and follow the USDA's advice on preparing it.

Marinating, brining and basting your bird are all great strategies for getting the most flavor out of your poultry. The USDA says that a turkey can marinate for up to two days in the fridge before becoming unsafe to eat. Please do not reuse your marinade for anything unless you boil it first. It's been hanging out with raw turkey for hours.

Making sure there's no cross-contamination in your kitchen and cooking your turkey through to at least 165 degrees is a good way to avoid any Thanksgiving salmonella mishaps, so you can focus on the important things like whether the turkey tastes good, fighting with your family (if that's your thing), parades and football.

Here's how to file your state and federal taxes for free in 2021

by Kristen Doerer for ProPublica, Justin Elliott and Karim Doumar

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: The ProPublica Free Tax Guide

Free, Fact-Checked Tax Information. That's All.

Most Americans are eligible for free tax-preparation services, but the truly free options can be hard to find. If you're not careful, you could end up using a service that says it's free but demands payment after you've spent time entering your information.

Now that the IRS haspushedthe deadline for 2020 taxes to May 17, you have even more time to make sure you're using the service that's right for you.

How do you file online for free?

If you make less than$72,000 a year, you can find free tax filing options at the IRS Free File webpage.

Here are Free File options from TurboTax, TaxSlayer and others. (H&R Block has left the Free File program since last year.)

Each site has its own eligibility requirements, so be sure to find one that will be free for you.

It can take a bit of effort to find an option that fits your situation. Try using the IRSlookuptoolto find the right one. Most of the options provide tax prep for both federal and state returns.

Best for: People who make less than the income cap and want a convenient and easy way to file online.

If you make more than $72,000 a year, you may have access to free options offered by several commercial tax prep companies, like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block or TaxAct.

But buyer beware: Some companies use a variety of tactics to try to wring money out of you, often only throwing up a paywall after you've gone through the trouble of inputting most of your information.

The widely advertised “free" options are typically only really free based on which tax forms you need to file. Which forms are free and which will trigger a demand for a fee depends on the company. So read the fine print before you decide.

  • Here is the list of forms supported by H&R Block's “free online" version.
  • Here is the list of forms supported by TaxAct's “free" offer. Click the tab labeled “forms."
  • Here is the list of forms supported by TurboTax “Free Edition."

Credit Karma also offers a free tax filing service for “all supported forms," but the company tries to monetize your personal tax data by using it to target you with advertising.

Best for: People who don't qualify for Free File but have income only from a standard job and perhaps a bank account, and who want to file online.

If you're in the military, you can use MilTax, a service provided by the Department of Defense that uses a version of H&R Block's tax software. It is available for free to active-duty service members as well as those in the National Guard or the reserves, as well as their families. There are no income or tax form restrictions. There are also free, in-person options to get tax help if you are in the military or family — see the section below.

You can also get free advice from a professional who understands tax issues specific to the military. The phone number is 800-342-9647, or you can live chat with them.

Best for: People in the military, guard or reserves and their families.

How can I get personal tax help for free?

You can qualify for the IRS'Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program if you:

  • Make less than around $57,000 a year, OR
  • Live with a disability, OR
  • Speak limited English.

You can qualify for the IRS'Tax Counseling for the Elderly program if you:

  • Are at least 60 years old.

These programs match you with IRS-certified volunteers across the country who can help with free basic income tax preparation and electronic filing. You can use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance locator tool or call 800-906-9887 to find someone to help you. Keep in mind that some locations may require an appointment.

Best for: People who are confused by the tax process and want someone to help walk them through the process.

If you're in the military and want individual tax help, you can get freein-person tax help on many U.S. military bases worldwide. Military.com's base guide is a good place to start.

Best for: People in the military and their families who want advice from someone who knows the ins and outs of military tax filing.

Why is TurboTax charging me?

If you make less than $39,000 a year (or $72,000 if you're in the military) and TurboTax is telling you it costs money to file, you are probably using the wrong version of TurboTax. Don't worry, there is a way to access the truly free version.

As ProPublica reported in 2019, TurboTax purposely hid its Free File product and directed taxpayers to a version where many had to pay, called the TurboTax Free Edition. If you clicked on this “FREE Guaranteed" option, you could input a lot of your information, only to be told toward the end of the process that you need to pay.

You can still accessTurboTax's Free File version. This version is offered through the Free File agreement.

TurboTax's misleadingadvertisingandwebsite designdirected users to more expensive versions of the software, even if they qualified to file for free. After our stories published, some people demanded and got refunds. Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, faces several investigations and lawsuits over this practice. The company has denied wrongdoing, and has moved to acquire other free tax-preparation companies like Credit Karma.

Following ProPublica's reporting, the IRS announced an update to its agreement with the tax-preparation companies. Among other things, the update bars the companies from hiding their Free File offerings from Google search results. It also makes it so each company has to name their Free File service the same way, using the format: IRS Free File Program delivered by [COMPANY NAME].

What's the difference between TurboTax's “Free Guaranteed" and IRS Free File Delivered by TurboTax?

TurboTax Free Edition is not always free. It has only been free for tax returns that the company defines as “simple." That often means people with student loans and freelance income actually have to pay to file. Look for Intuit's “IRS Free File Program delivered by TurboTax." This year, you are eligible if you:

  • Make less than $39,000 a year, OR
  • Make less than $72,000 a year and serve in the military.

What is Free File, and who is the Free File Alliance?

The Free File Alliance is actually a group of tax companies that — contrary to the name — is in the business of charging people to help them file their taxes. They spent a lot of money to make sure that the IRS didn't develop its own free tax filing service that would compete with what they have to offer. As part of the new Free File Alliance deal, the IRS is now able to offer a competing service, but it's not doing so this year.

The Free File Alliance companies have agreed to offer free tax filing for a certain percentage of the population based on income. Head to the IRS website to see which option is the best for you. These are the companies in the alliance:

  • 1040NOW Corp.
  • ezTaxReturn.com
  • FileYourTaxes
  • Free Tax Returns
  • Intuit
  • OnLine Taxes
  • TaxACT
  • TaxHawk
  • TaxSlayer

About this guide:

ProPublica has reported extensively about taxes, the IRS Free File program and the IRS. Specifically, we've covered the ways in which the for-profit tax preparation industry — companies like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block and Tax Slayer — has lobbied for the Free File program, then systematicallyundermined it with evasive search tactics and confusing design. These companies also work to fill search engine results with tax “guides" that sometimes route users to paid products. This guide is not personalized tax advice, and you should speak to a tax professional about your specific tax situation.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Happy Holidays!