updated 11/26/2008 12:04:01 PM ET 2008-11-26T17:04:01

Thanksgiving turkeys — and other poultry — are less likely to be contaminated with bacteria that can cause food poisoning if the birds chowed on natural feed ingredients, scientists have found.

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About 76 million cases of food poisoning occur in the United States every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Outbreaks of various pathogens traced to spinach, peanut butter, tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, and other foods have grabbed headlines in recent years. But plants aren't the only food that can become contaminated by disease-causing microbes. Meat can be just as dangerous if not handled properly

"Food-borne pathogens are very prevalent in a lot of our domestic animals, and especially in poultry," said Dan Donoghue of the University of Arkansas in the American Chemical Society's Global Challenges podcast.

Two food poisoning dangers
The two biggest bacterial contaminants of poultry are the well-known salmonella, and the perhaps less well-known campylobacter, which is actually the No. 1 cause of food poisoning in the United States and the world. Signs of food poisoning include vomiting and diarrhea.

These invisible bugs aren't generally a problem when enjoying some roast turkey on Thanksgiving because cooking tends to kill them. But if cooks get sloppy when handling raw birds, the bacteria can be transferred to cooking utensils or other foods, potentially making dinner guests sick to their stomachs.

Campylobacter has been the tougher of the two bacteria to eliminate from poultry because it can't be eradicated with antibiotics like salmonella can.

"With poultry, until recently, we haven't had any treatments at all for campylobacter because it's a normal microflora, so when you use an antibiotic it may reduce the concentration, but not eliminate it," Donoghue said.

Since antibiotics weren't doing the trick, Donoghue decided to see if changing the birds' diet would make a difference — and according to results he and his colleagues published earlier this year (in the July issue of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology), it did.

They fed the birds natural feed ingredients, specifically a compound called caprylic acid.

"It’s a medium-chain fatty acid, it's found in cow's milk, and in coconut milk, and it has antibacterial activity," Donoghue said. "We found that when you add it to the diet of poultry, it seems to consistently inhibit or reduce campylobacter colonization of poultry."

Donoghue and his colleagues will publish further research on the antibacterial feed in an upcoming issue of the journal Poultry Science.

Turkey tips
Proper handling and cooking of poultry provides protection against this bacteria, as it does against many viruses and bacteria, including salmonella and E. coli. A good-quality food thermometer is an important tool for anyone who cooks poultry, experts say.

Here are the USDA recommendations:

  • Wash hands before and after handling food.
  • Keeping raw meat, poultry, fish, and their juices away from other food.
  • After cutting raw meats, wash hands, cutting board, knife, and counter tops with hot, soapy water.
  • Sanitize cutting boards by using a solution of 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach in 1 quart of water.
  • Use a food thermometer to ensure food has reached the proper temperature. Cook whole birds to 180 degrees Fahrenheit; breasts to 170 F; drumsticks, thighs and wings to 180 F; and a minimum oven temperature of 325 F.

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