Get ready for a food safety pop quiz: Let’s say you’re planning to make chicken for dinner tonight.
Now what’s your first step? Do you usually wash raw chicken under running water in the sink before cooking?
If so, then it’s time to change your habits. By washing raw poultry before cooking, you might end up spreading food-borne bacteria that can potentially cause a life-threatening illness, say food safety experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“We really want to make sure people are aware that if you may be (washing poultry), it is a risk,” says Chrystal Okonta, technical information specialist with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “It can cause food-borne illness. It can transfer to foods that you may not be cooking, and that can make you sick.”
The USDA’s latest observational study reveals that home cooks are putting themselves, and their families, at risk of food-borne illness when they wash or rinse raw poultry.
Even though the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world, food-borne illness is still a significant public health threat, Okonta says.
Up to one in six Americans each year gets sick from food-borne illness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Food-borne illness results in about 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually in the United States. “So it’s a very serious concern,” Okonta says.
For the USDA study, participants were observed as they prepared a meal of chicken thighs and lettuce salad.
The individuals who washed raw poultry in the sink reported that they did it for cosmetic reasons, Okonta says.
“They said it was just to get rid of dirt or grime, and they just didn’t like the way it felt or looked,” she says. “But they weren’t necessarily thinking about the risk of transferring food-borne illness-causing bacteria onto other surfaces – onto your sinks and other foods you might be eating.”
Of the participants who washed their raw poultry, 60 percent had bacteria in their sink after washing or rinsing the poultry, the USDA study found. Even more concerning, 14 percent still had bacteria in their sinks after they attempted to clean the sink.
Okonta says bacteria can remain on cooking surfaces for as long as 4 to 32 hours after preparing food.
The study also found that lettuce from prepared salad was contaminated with potential illness-causing bacteria at a frequency of 26% for poultry washers.
“That’s one-quarter of salads,” Okonta notes. “You would essentially be putting bacteria straight into your mouth.”
Food-borne bacteria can spread when cooking surfaces, including sinks, countertops and cutting boards, aren’t effectively cleaned and sanitized, Okonta says.
Just wiping down surfaces with a wet dishtowel isn’t an effective way to remove bacteria, Okonta stresses. You also need to sanitize kitchen surfaces.
First, clean cooking surfaces by washing with warm, soapy water. Then apply a sanitizing solution, either commercial or homemade. An easy homemade version is to mix a solution of 1 tablespoon of liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water.
After sanitizing, let surfaces air dry, or dry with paper towels before using again, Okonta says.
The USDA also recommends preparing foods that won’t be cooked, such as vegetables and salads, before handling raw meat and poultry.
Most importantly, you can destroy any potential illness-causing bacteria by cooking meat and poultry to a safe internal temperature as measured by a food thermometer. Poultry (whole or ground) is safe to eat at 165°F.
“The only safe way to get rid of food-borne illness-causing bacteria is by cooking your chicken,” Okonta says.
And always wash your hands before and after handling raw meat or poultry, Okonta says.
Unfortunately, the USDA’s observational study found that consumers weren’t properly washing their hands 97% of the time.
The CDC’s recommended five steps for proper handwashing are: Wet hands. Lather with soap. Scrub for at least 20 seconds. Rinse. Dry with a clean towel.
“We just want people to be safe. If you are taking these food safety steps in mind, then you are really protecting yourself and your family from what can be a very severe and deadly illness,” Okonta says.
If you have questions about safe food handling at home, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MP-HOTLINE (1-888-674-6854). Live food safety experts are available Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time. Expert advice is also available 24/7 at AskKaren.gov.
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