Washing poultry can spread pathogens

I still listen to a lot of punk rock and share the sentiment that the genre was built on: I don’t really like being told what to do. I’m not sure many folks do (even if they don’t describe themselves as punk rock). But if I don’t know where to start on something like how to tie a tie, change the oil in my car, or make a new dish, I go to the Internet.

Recipe websites or YouTube video how-tos (and even cookbooks if they still exist outside of used bookstores) are often looked to for guidance on how to do be an amateur chef. Stuff like making pancakes from scratch, cooking the perfect burger or baking a chicken are out there (and usually with no mention of food safety). Sometimes the pros and amateurs might get the cooking right but fail to reduce the risk (by not suggesting a thermometer). Sometimes it’s worse, and those who are being looked to as experts suggest something that can only increase risk.

This is the case with washing meat before cooking it.

To wash or not wash meat before preparation is a practice that elicits emotion in a lot of folks. Any time I mention to a group of commercial food handlers or normal folks who cook for their families that rinsing poultry before cooking it increases the likelihood that Salmonella or Campylobacter is spread throughout the kitchen it turns into a Johnny Rotten sneer-off.  The approach I use is to provide the best available evidence culled from the literature to help eaters calculate the risks and benefits of food choices. Present the info in a compelling way and then step back to let the individual do their thing.

In November 2012, Shauna Henley Susan Stein and Jennifer Quinlan at Drexel University published the results of a set of focus groups conducted with various minority groups and they found culturally unique behaviors including using hot water or acidic solutions  to clean raw poultry prior to preparation. In response to the results, they created a set of resources including culturally-appropriate videos and novellas.

From the Drexel site:

Although raw chicken and turkey can carry bacteria on their surfaces, research has shown that washing raw poultry under running water in your kitchen sink is a bad idea.

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. This can make people sick, especially young children, pregnant women, older adults and the immunocompromised.

Instead, just take raw poultry straight from the package into the cooking pan. The heat from the cooking process will kill any bacteria that are present. Then clean up any splashes and wash your hands with soap and hot water.

Check out the resources here (some developed by the good folks at New Mexico State’s media lab).

There are multiple communication resources including cooking demonstration videos and photonovellas at the Drexel site (which can be found at www.drexel.edu/dontwashyourchicken).

This program and the research it was built on has garnered a lot of attention from NPR, Alton Brown and others, we’re happy to participate in the dialogue at barfblog and field questions from readers related to washing chicken and other related issues. Jennifer Quinlan will also be weighing in on questions and comments here.

This entry was posted in E. coli by Ben Chapman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.
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  • Marty West

    “The approach I use is to provide the best available evidence culled from the literature to help eaters calculate the risks and benefits of food choices. ”

    Can you tell us what literature for the “don’t wash your chicken” recommendations of the USDA and FSA recommendations, since before 2000, are based on?

    The Drexel, NC State and NM State websites, recent NPR story and various newspaper articles and press releases from late July 2010, refer to “European researchers” or “researchers in the UK”. However, after a day on Google, Google Scholar and foodbase.org.uk I unable to find the studies that show pathogens can spray up to a meter (3 feet in some references) from washing chicken under running water.

    One source suggests tests by Which? the UK equivalent of Consumer Reports, another source suggests published FSA reports, perhaps by Worsfold and Griffith who published extensively on this subject from 1995 to 2005.

    • Ben Chapman

      Marty – The work that I reference was commissioned by the UK FSA and conducted by Campden BRI: R&D Report No. 164
      Risk factors associated with the domestic handling of meat: observation and microbiological examination of kitchen practices
      H Newsholme, L Everis, G Betts and A Paish 2002. Not sure of the pre-2000 work in the literature other tan the Worsfold and Griffith’s stuff from 1995 (I believe that was published in Dairy Food and Environmental Sanitation, now known as Food Protection Trends).

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  • Carolyn

    Any separate data about organic, grass fed chicken? Same risks? Thanks!

    • Ben

      Risk is similar for washing – production style doesn’t influence chance of spray. Some work published by colleagues at Penn State showed that whole chickens purchased from farmers’ markets had a higher prevalence of certain pathogens when compared to what was available at grocery stores. From the Penn State press release:

      Of 100 whole chickens purchased from farmers markets, 90 percent tested positive for Campylobacter and 28 percent harbored Salmonella.

      By comparison, during the same period, 28 percent of raw, whole, organic chickens purchased from grocery stores were found to contain Campylobacter bacteria, and 20 percent tested positive for Salmonella. Fifty two percent of raw, whole, nonorganic, conventionally processed chickens from the grocery stores tested positive for Campylobacter and 8 percent of those contained Salmonella.

      Overall, the chickens purchased at the farmers markets carried higher bacterial loads than the birds purchased at grocery stores.

      The research, published online in the Journal of Food Safety, sheds some doubt on the widely held belief that locally bought poultry is safer, according to lead researcher Catherine Cutter, professor and food safety extension specialist in the Department of Food Science.

      (From http://news.psu.edu/story/281316/2013/07/11/research/whole-chickens-farmers-markets-may-have-more-pathogenic-bacteria, study can be found at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jfs.12047/abstract)

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  • Anne ONeill

    Thank goodness for common sense. I haven’t washed my chicken for years. I always suspected that cooking took care of bacteria. I couldn’t see getting a beautiful roast all wet and then wasting a bunch of paper towels to dry so you could get herbs and spices to stick to it. I did realize I couldn’t use the sink again for salad prep until I’d sanitzied that. If you can’t use a cutting board for poultry and salad, surely you couldn’t use the sink. Basically I’m lazy… and green about wasting paper towels. About time I’m getting endorsement.

  • Matt

    Question: If I don’t rinse off the chicken, how do I get off all of the fat and “slime” that is on the chicken before I cook it?

    I used to never wash my chicken. I would just bake it in the oven. Then I met my wife and she showed me the large amount of fat, slime and other stuff on the chicken meat. So now I wash my chicken and use a butter knife to scrape off the fat and slime at the same time.

    • Ben Chapman

      I’d suggest using a dishcloth or paper towel to wipe it down if you feel it’s necessary (I’m not sure how much fat you are removing, and the slime will be taken care of during the baking cooking process). If using a dishcloth, it is likely going to be contaminated with pathogens – you can reduce the risk of spreading them by laundering it right away. Paper towel should be one-use only.