Don't Wash Your Chicken and Other Food Safety Myths

I remember when I first heard this.  Don't wash your chicken, before you cook it?  I ignored it.  But over time, I began to realize it's true.  Washing it spreads deadly (or at least sick-making) bacteria.  Really.

“You should assume that if you have chicken, you have either Salmonella or Campylobacter bacteria on it, if not both,”Dr. Jennifer Quinlan, an associate professor at Drexel University, told newswise.com.  These two bacteria, she noted, are the leading causes of food-borne illness. “If you wash it, you’re more likely to spray bacteria all over the kitchen and yourself," she said. And the rinse water you've been using? It's not hot enough to kill bacteria anyway.

Washing raw poultry was a common unsafe practice in all the groups she studied for a documentary on safe cooking conditions, with some minor cultural differences in the method of washing.

People are very attached to the idea of washing raw poultry, she told newswise.com. “Some think they’re cleaning off germs. Some just want to get slime off or feel like it’s dirty,” she said. “There are a range of reasons, including just feeling like they should do it – ‘It’s raw, I should clean it.’”

Quinlan estimates that public readiness to stop washing chicken is “about where thermometer usage was about 15-20 years go.” At that time, she said, “Nobody owned a thermometer or thought about using one to test doneness [of cooking meat]. Now people own a thermometer, and at least some use them.”

Here's another myth (I'm guilty of).  It's okay to thaw frozen meat on the counter.  Wrong.  Since it starts out frozen, bacteria isn’t really a problem, right?  Nope. Actually, bacteria grow surprisingly rapidly at room temperatures, so the counter is never a place you should thaw foods. Instead, thaw foods the right way, either in the micro-wave, then promptly cook it, or simply throw it in the fridge, the safest way.

Since bacteria can multiply rapidly at room temperature, thawing or marinating foods on the counter is one of the riskiest things you can do when preparing food for your family, according to foodsafety.gov.

I don’t need to wash fruits or vegetables if I’m going to peel them. Because it’s easy to transfer bacteria from the peel or rind you’re cutting to the inside of your fruits and veggies, it’s important to wash all produce, even if you plan to peel it.  All you have to think about it is all the people dying or getting really sick from eating cantaloupe a couple of years ago.  All kinds of things can happen to the outside of your fruit -- people touching it with dirty hands when picking or packing it, or even (I know, gross), think about all the people handling it in the grocery store when deciding whether to buy (we won't go into the number (majority) of people who don't wash their hands after going to the bathroom).

And, finally, leftovers are safe to eat until they smell bad. I never have leftovers.  Not because I'm a great cook but because my husband can't leave a stick of food on the table.  If he sees it, he eats it. But the kinds of bacteria that cause food poisoning do not affect the look, smell, or taste of food. Use this Safe Storage Times chart to make sure you know the right time to throw food out.

So, agreed.  Raw chicken is slimy and gross.  But prevent yourself from washing it.  You're not doing your family any favors. 

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