Should You Wash Raw Chicken?
This may be a common practice, but it could put you at risk for food poisoning
To wash or not to wash raw chicken? Even before health regulators released their advice against the common practice, it’s been a loaded question.
We’ve heard from our friends, families, and followers on social media, and many feel strongly about the answer.
Some say they’d never wash it, while others said they’d never eat chicken that hasn’t been washed because they don’t consider it clean. Some even said they’d avoid eating at a friend’s or relative’s house or at a restaurant if they knew that chicken washing wasn’t a routine practice there.
Case in point: In a 2019 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (PDF), researchers filmed nearly 300 people preparing a meal of chicken thighs and a salad in a test kitchen the same way they did at home. The chicken was spiked with a harmless strain of bacteria to mimic salmonella.
About 35 percent of the cooks washed the chicken, some of them even after receiving emails explaining reasons why they shouldn’t. Among those people, 60 percent had the bacteria in their sinks—and cleaning them didn’t get rid of all the bacteria in some cases. Plus some people transferred the bacteria to the salad they were prepping, likely due to improper handwashing.
Okay, rinsing is risky, but what about soaking chicken in saltwater or using vinegar or citrus juice to “wash” it?
“Using a bowl with water in it may help contain the water used for washing or rinsing, but it would still need to be fully cleaned and sanitized because it came into contact with the raw poultry juices,” says Meredith Carothers, technical information specialist at the Food Safety and Inspection Service. "The water would also likely be disposed of into the sink, which would then mean you’d want to clean and sanitize the sink to ensure it’s safe to continue using for additional food preparation.” Plus, rinsing or soaking poultry doesn’t actually destroy germs, and neither does vinegar or citrus, Carothers says.
According to the USDA, meat and poultry are cleaned during processing, so further washing is not necessary. To remove blood, fat, or skin from any raw meat or poultry, Carothers recommends doing so on a clean cutting board, using a knife to cut away unwanted bits, and patting it down with a paper towel. Then you should immediately wash and sanitize your cutting board, any knives or utensils you used, and anything that touched the chicken, then wash your hands thoroughly, she says.
For those who’ve told us that they’ve never gotten sick from washing chicken, so why stop now, Carothers says the numbers speak for themselves: Every year 48 million people get sick from foodborne illness, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
Plenty of our friends and followers who wash their chicken said that they understood the risk but still wouldn’t stop doing it. Regardless of where you stand, to stay safe, follow these meal prep steps:
Wash your hands before you start cooking. Use soap and rub your hands for at least 20 seconds—the time it would take you to sing the ABC song in your head—rinse, then dry your hands on a clean kitchen towel or paper towel.
Prep foods you’ll eat raw before prepping raw poultry or meat. If salad greens and other foods you’re not going to cook are taken care of first and removed from the prep area, there’s less chance of contaminating them with harmful bacteria, the USDA says.
Every time you touch raw meat, wash your hands afterward. “If you don’t, anything you touch—such as utensils, spice containers, your phone, and other foods—can potentially be contaminated with bacteria,” Rogers says. In the USDA study cited above, just 25 percent of participants washed their hands every time they should have during meal prep, and few did so correctly. A common mistake was not rubbing their hands together with soap long enough.
Take care with kitchen utensils. Avoid using the same cutting board, knife, plate, or other utensils you used for raw meat on other foods. Or if that’s your only option, be sure to clean and sanitize them before using them for other food.
Use a food thermometer. “Thorough cooking is the only way to make sure that meat or poultry is safe to eat, and you can’t tell whether it’s done by looking at it,” Rogers says. Poultry should be cooked to 165° F—whole, parts, or ground. Beef, pork, and lamb should reach 145° F for roasts, steaks, and chops, and 160° F for ground meat.