Why washing raw chicken is a no-no

Chicken in a bathtub Is it right to not wash chicken before cooking? (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

We’re a chicken-crazy household. At least once a week, we’d indulge in our favourite chicken treats. Last time when I was prepping the meat for dinner, my husband was appalled to see that I took the chicken breasts right out of the packet and threw it into the pan: “Gross! Why?

The husband, unfortunately, is a stranger not only to cooking but also to food safety rules. Among the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 10 commandments is not washing chicken before cooking.

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Why would one of the biggest health organisations in the world recommend something that would seemingly warrant a visit from the food safety officer? Clearly, there’s a reason and the reason is food poisoning.

“Wait, what?”

Why you shouldn’t wash raw chicken before cooking

It’s normal practice to wash meats before cooking them to remove traces of blood or other gross bits that may be sticking to them. But the road to hell is always paved with good intentions. Washing raw chicken may actually land you in the doctor’s office with a nasty case of food poisoning. That’s because raw chicken may be teeming with pathogens.

If they make way into your stomach, be rest assured you will be very, very sick.

Food safety experts say that washing or rinsing raw chicken may cause the germ-ridden water to splash on surfaces and contaminate the foods kept nearby.

A study found that the contaminated water can travel up to 28 inches (71 cm) on the sides of the sink and 20 inches (51 cm) in front of the sink.

That’s not all. The washing process can land the pathogens on to your hands, your clothes and even your mouth.

Pathogens like Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens bacteria aside, Campylobacter is a routine offender in causing diarrhoeal diseases.

Harvard Health says that humans usually become sick with Campylobacter after eating undercooked meat, especially chicken.

There’s another reason why Campylobacter is often at the centre of the ‘to-wash-or-not-wash-raw-chicken’ debate. Several studies say that Campylobacter, more than any other pathogen, has the ability to spread quickly and easily on surfaces.

According to the National Health Service (NHS), only a few campylobacter cells are enough to cause food poisoning.

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But isn’t it gross to cook unwashed chicken?

We are all taught that any foodstuff, especially if it’s an animal protein, should be washed thoroughly before cooking. If you align with that belief, it’s clear why the thought of unwashed chicken may make you retch.

Most Indian households follow a three-step process to sanitise meat — washing, treating it with lemon juice and then smearing it with salt and turmeric. But we forget the best sanitising technique of them all — heat!

It doesn’t matter if you don’t wash chicken as long as you source it from a hygienic place. Cooking the meat thoroughly will kill any pathogen lurking inside.

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Other steps to follow to prevent contamination by chicken

The CDC and the NHS have outlined some steps to ensure that the meat doesn’t cause food poisoning.

Cover up the meat in a disposable, zip lock bag before keeping it in the fridge. This will prevent the contaminated juices from trickling on to other food.

Thoroughly wash all utensils that came in contact with the raw chicken. This will prevent cross-contamination of food. Wash your hands with soap for a good 20 seconds. Also, keep a separate cutting board for raw chicken.

Lastly, cook the chicken thoroughly as a final method to sanitise the meat thoroughly. CDC recommends cooking the meat at a temperature of 165 °F to ensure all the pathogens are killed.  ” Make sure chicken is steaming hot all the way through before serving. Cut into the thickest part of the meat to check it’s steaming hot with no pink meat and the juices run clear,” says the NHS.