Does Washing Chicken Make It Safer to Eat?

Do you wash chicken before you cook it? Oftentimes, home cooks simply do what they were taught by their parents and grandparents without learning why they follow those steps. Unfortunately in the case of washing chicken, most of what we have learned is wrong. Perpetrated for years by famous cooks like Julia Child and Alton Brown, the myth of washing chicken before you cook with it isn't just a myth, it's a matter of health and food safety.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is squarely in the anti-washing camp and has been for many years, despite the number of home cooks that continue to rinse their chickens in the sink before popping them in the pan. There are two reasons why washing your chicken isn't recommended, but first, we have to know what we're up against.

What is Campylobacter?

Campylobacter bacteria is a food bug that can be fatal if a person experiencing food poisoning from raw poultry isn't treated. It's a bacteria that is easily spread and only a few of the little bugs can cause the onset of illness. This, along with Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens bacteria are found in undercooked or raw chicken. Researchers have found that one of the most common ways this foodborne illness is spread in the home is through washing raw chicken.

This video from the Food Standards Agency in the U.K. is a quick overview of the Campylobacter infection that accounts for the most common form of food poisoning out there. Food safety experts strongly advise not to wash chicken because of this risk!

1. Washing raw chicken doesn't remove all bacteria.

Bacteria is tiny, y'all! You might feel that icky slime running off the chicken as you wash it and feel like you're doing a good job of cleaning the bird. It's simply not the case. Most of the bacteria attached to the chicken is so connected to the raw poultry that washing it off wouldn't even cause it to budge. In fact, unless you had special germ-vision to pick up tiny microbes invisible to the naked eye, you have no idea what you're doing, anyways.

No matter how much hot water you use, that raw meat is still a breeding ground. No amount of soapy water, hot water, or lemon juice will remove it. The only way to truly kill off the harmful bacteria on the bird is to cook it through until the internal temperature reads 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don't have a food thermometer, we recommend this version because it is small, portable, and accurate.

2. Your chicken washing is actually dirtying up the place.

That same bacteria that you can't quite see is easily transmitted. The raw poultry juices you come into contact with even contain germs, so that means you're spreading these chicken juices to your own body up to your elbows.

This is why the CDC or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says not to wash raw chicken, as rinsing it can contaminate the rest of your kitchen. Even the splashing water that lands on your kitchen countertops and faucet contains these germs and through cross-contamination, you can do more harm than good.

Skip the washing step, and make sure to use a separate cutting board for your chicken so you don't inadvertently spread bacteria around your kitchen. Wash hands after touching raw chicken so you don't spread germs or get sick!

So the next time you pull out the raw poultry, just go about seasoning and breading without the sink bath. It's a step that saves time, anyways!

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This post was originally published on May 2, 2019.