According to the FDA, washing produce under fresh, cool running water with the help of a little gentle friction between your fingertips is the most effective way to clean raw fruits and veggies. Which begs the question: Does this same procedure apply when it comes to handling raw poultry, like chicken?
Many folks who have also asked this question have opted to give the raw chicken a quick rinse under the impression that it can only help—understandable. However, according to Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, FACEP, FUHM, FACMT, a medical toxicologist and co-medical director at the National Capital Poison Center, the truth is, washing chicken before cooking can actually heighten the risk of cross-contamination and the spread of foodborne illnesses. Here’s what to know.
Should you wash chicken before cooking it?
First, know that if you’ve been in the habit of rinsing chicken as you would produce, you’re definitely not alone. “A 2015 survey of over 1,500 adult grocery shoppers in the United States revealed that nearly 70 percent of people wash their raw poultry before cooking it,” Dr. Johnson-Arbor says. According to her, the confusion likely stems from the idea that “washing chicken can help remove germs from the meat or blood and slime from the product.” However, Dr. Johnson-Arbor wants folks to know that’s simply not to case. Instead, it’s both unnecessary work and discouraged according to food safety guidelines.
“When preparing chicken, turkey, or other meat products for cooking, it’s important to remember that washing and rinsing have not been proven effective in removing bacteria and other germs from meat,” Dr. Johnson-Arbor says. On the contrary, it can lead to a transfer of bacteria and germs onto surfaces. “It’s important to keep in mind that the process of washing poultry can cause accidental—and often microscopic—transfer of germs from the raw chicken to other foods or cooking equipment, as well as your sinks, countertops, or other surfaces in the kitchen, a process known as ‘cross-contamination,’” she says.
The danger of cross-contamination
According to the USDA, cross-contamination is the transfer of harmful bacteria to food from other foods, cutting boards, and utensils if they are not handled properly. Avoiding it is especially important when handling highly-perishable foods like raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood that are prone to causing foodborne illness—which is why keeping these foods (and their juices) away from prepared or ready-to-eat foods and fresh produce is so necessary.
When it comes to handling raw chicken, research shows that cross-contamination is highly likely if it’s washed. “In one study of people who washed raw poultry, 60 percent had bacteria present in their sink after washing or rinsing the meat. Even when people attempted to clean their sink after washing poultry, 14 percent of these individuals still had bacteria present in the sink,” Dr. Johnson-Arbor says, which can lead to food poisoning. “These leftover bacteria can cause serious foodborne illness, including Salmonella and Campylobacter infections. Due to the risks of cross-contamination and foodborne illnesses, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommend that people do not rinse or wash meat or poultry during food preparation.”
How to clean chicken safely
While washing chicken in the sink is out of the question, Dr. Johnson-Arbor says that you can use other techniques to remove any unwanted gunk before cooking it. “If you want to remove blood, slime, or other unwanted products from raw poultry, don’t wash or rinse the meat. Instead, dab the affected area gently with a damp paper towel to lift off the unwanted substance,” she says. Next, she emphasizes that washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after handling raw poultry is important.
If you do have concerns or questions about foodborne illness or if someone develops unwanted or unexpected signs or symptoms thought to be from food poisoning after handling raw chicken, Dr. Johnson-Arbor recommends contacting poison control for expert advice. “There are two ways to reach poison control in the United States: online at www.poison.org or by phone at 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day,” she says.
Easy chicken tostadas are on the menu tonight: