“Don’t wash your raw chicken. Washing can spread germs from the chicken to other food or utensils in the kitchen,” tweeted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) late last month.
It was a simple enough health-and-safety message — and one based on plenty of research. But some people on Twitter didn’t take kindly to it. They tweeted back that they had no intention of changing this particular food-preparation habit.
Some simply couldn’t — or wouldn’t — believe that washing raw chicken is an unhealthy practice. Others insisted (wrongly) that because they washed the chicken with vinegar and/or lemon juice, they had nothing to worry about.
The backlash compelled the CDC to tweet again a few days later: “We didn’t mean to get you all hot about not washing your chicken! But it’s true: kill germs by cooking chicken thoroughly, not washing it. You shouldn’t wash any poultry, meat, or eggs before cooking. They can all spread germs around your kitchen. Don’t wing food safety!”
Invisible to the naked eye
The reason why so many people disbelieve the CDC is that they can’t see the dangerous bacteria — most often Campylobacter, but sometimes Salmonella or Clostridium perfringens— when it splashes off the chicken as they wash it.
But not seeing the bacteria contaminating your kitchen, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
“If germs were visible to the naked eye, you would see that washing poultry just splashes bacteria all over you, your kitchen towels, your countertops, and any other food you have nearby, such as raw foods or salads,” explain researchers at Drexel University, who have studied the problem extensively. “This can make people sick, especially young children, pregnant women, older adults and the immunocompromised.”
So strongly do the researchers feel about the topic, they have created a website — and a video — to demonstrate just how easily a kitchen can get contaminated.
A delayed reaction
Campylobacter is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the United States, including here in Minnesota. And raw poultry is frequently to blame.
“These bacteria live in the intestines of healthy birds, and most raw poultry meat commonly has Campylobacter on it,” the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) explains on its website.
About 800 to 1,200 cases of Campylobacter-caused food poisoning are reported in Minnesota each year, although the number is undoubtedly much, much higher. Many people don’t realize that their symptoms — diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and vomiting — are the result of a Campylobacter infection, particularly since the symptoms can take two to five days to develop.
Instead, people often mistakenly attribute the symptoms to a generic “stomach flu.”
The same is true for the other two types of bacteria — Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens — that can get splashed about your kitchen if you wash raw chicken. Both types of bacteria also live in the intestinal tract of birds, including chickens. And both cause symptoms similar to those of Campylobacter infections.
The CDC estimates that about 1.2 million Americans are poisoned by Salmonella each year and another 1 million by Clostridium perfringes.
Salmonella infections can be particularly dangerous. They kill about 450 Americans annually, according to the CDC.
Here in Minnesota, about 700 to 925 cases of Salmonella poisoning are reported annually, but MDH officials believe the actual number is at least 30 times higher. Minnesota has also seen outbreaks of Clostridium perfringens poisonings.
How to handle chicken
So, heed the CDC’s advice. Don’t wash raw chicken before you cook it. And make sure you follow these additional CDC tips as well:
• Place chicken in a disposable bag before putting in your shopping cart or refrigerator to prevent raw juices from getting onto other foods.
• Wash hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling chicken.
• Use a separate cutting board for raw chicken.
• Never place cooked food or fresh produce on a plate, cutting board, or other surface that previously held raw chicken.
• Wash cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and countertops with hot soapy water after preparing chicken and before you prepare the next item.
• Use a food thermometer to make sure chicken is cooked to a safe internal temperature of 165°F.
• If cooking frozen raw chicken in a microwavable meal, handle it as you would fresh raw chicken. Follow cooking directions carefully to prevent food poisoning.
• If you think the chicken you are served at a restaurant or anywhere else is not fully cooked, send it back for more cooking.
• Refrigerate or freeze leftover chicken within 2 hours (or within 1 hour if the temperature outside is higher than 90°F).