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Should you wash chicken before you cook it?

Most of us have grown up believing that it was imperative to wash chicken before you cook it. We believed we were washing off salmonella and other bacteria that could make us sick. Turns out only part of the logic is true. These pathogens can make us sick, but washing them off is a bad idea.

Salmonella and campylobacter

A good percentage of chickens carry pathogens that don't make chickens sick, but can make humans sick. Depending on who is doing the research, as many as 20% of commercial chickens carry salmonella and up to 80% carry a bacteria called campylobacter. The best way to kill both of these bad guys is to cook your chicken to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point the pathogens are no longer a threat to humans. Salmonella causes serious illness in the U.S. with 15,000 hospitalized for salmonella poisoning and 400 dying of salmonellosis each year. So changing your washing habits is something well-worth considering.

The problem with washing

Washing would be a good idea, except that it is almost impossible to wash all of the pathogens off the chicken. Furthermore, many of them  do not make it down the drain. Instead we spread them into our sinks, our garbage disposal openings, our cupboards, our hands, our dish rags and our sponges. Worse, microdroplets of water carrying the bad guys can spread as far as three feet during the washing process. Check out this video created by Drexel University researchers if you are still not convinced.

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A better way to handle chicken

Instead of washing chicken, season your chicken on top of the packaging it came in. Transfer the chicken from the packaging directly to the cooking pan. Carefully dispose of the packaging. If you use cutting boards and knives, wash them, your hands and your countertops with hot soapy water. Use the 20 second rule, or a couple rounds of the Happy Birthday song while you wash.

USDA recommends not washing chicken

The Drexel research on not washing your chicken has recently made the rounds on the internet. Interestingly, the USDA has recommended not washing your chicken for years. It just goes to show that traditions are hard to change. Other USDA chicken handling recommendations include:

  • Wash your hands before and after handling chicken and meat.
  • Take care disposing of marinates the chicken or meat has been soaking in. The pathogens will transfer to the marinate and spread if you do not dispose of them carefully. This is why you don't reuse a chicken marinate or put cooked chicken back in the pan you marinated it in.
  • Take care not to cross contaminate when disposing of chicken packaging.
  • Cook poultry to 165 degrees.
  • Keep your chicken refrigerated at 40 degrees F or below as the pathogens will proliferate at warmer temperatures.
  • For extra protection, wipe down counters and cutting boards with a solution of 1 T bleach in 1 gallon of water.

BTW, this also applies to beef, pork, lamb and other poultry

Stop washing your poultry and meat and buy yourself a thermometer instead. The safe temperature for whole-cut meat, including pork, is 145 degrees. Ground meat should be cooked to 160 degrees F.  

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