Food Safety Month – Don’t Wash Your Chicken!

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September is National Food Safety Education Month and this is the 3rd in my series of columns focusing on food safety. This week I’m writing about a practice that you may have that you might want to think about changing to help prevent foodborne illness. 

This may come as a surprise to many folks…but I’m urging you to NOT wash chicken before cooking. Washing chicken may cause more problems than not washing it.

The practice of washing chicken may have come from someone I admire greatly, Julia Child. In one of her episodes of The French Chef, she advised viewers to run uncooked chicken under the faucet. At the time, she thought it was “a safer thing to do.” She reasoned that we wash produce, so we should probably wash poultry, too. Julia said it, it must be right. Sorry, Julia, but no.

We all know that there can be bacterial hazards in raw poultry. The most concerning are Salmonella and Campylobacter. Meat and poultry account for 22% of all foodborne illnesses and 29% of all foodborne illness related deaths.

Research shows that 70% of consumers wash their chicken before they cook it, thinking washing helps to eliminate these pathogens on the chicken. But it does not remove harmful bacterial that may be on the raw poultry. 

Splashing is the problem. When washing chicken, you’re likely splashing dangerous bacteria around the kitchen. When you add water through washing or rinsing, you give the bacteria an even larger chance of spreading. These splashes can get on ready-to-eat food, kitchen utensils, countertops, sponges, dishcloths, your clothes, and ultimately all over your home. This is called cross-contamination. 

Keeping these simple steps in mind, can you help reduce the risk of foodborne illness from poultry:

  1. Wash your hands carefully before or after handling the raw chicken and other poultry.
  2. Best practice is to use poultry directly from the package. Be careful not to spread juices that may have collected on or in the package.
  3. Keep ready-to-eat foods away from the raw chicken. If you’re making salads or fresh foods that won’t be cooked, make sure they aren’t near where chicken juices can be splashed onto them.
  4. Keep kitchen surfaces and sinks clean by washing them with hot, soapy water and sanitizing them, especially after handling poultry
  5. If you feel you must get something off the chicken or dry it, use a clean paper towel and then carefully throw the towel out.
  6. Cook it to 165 °F. Cooking the chicken to 165 °F using a digital food thermometer will kill any dangerous bacteria and make it safe to eat. 

There are a couple of other things you can do to help make sure you’re keeping your chicken (and other foods safe): put chicken in separate bags at the grocery store to keep juices from getting onto other foods before you get it home. Store the poultry in that bag in the lowest part of your refrigerator so it won’t have the opportunity to drip potentially hazardous juices onto ready-to-eat foods and/or produce that won’t be cooked. Keep your refrigerator temperature below 40 degrees F.

After all of this, if you still feel you must wash or rinse your chicken….be careful! See this press release from the USDA for more information. 

References: Partnership for Food Safety Education, the United States Department of Agriculture and Drexel University

Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center 910-253-2610