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.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a 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.