raw whole chicken

To wash or not to wash: When it comes to chicken, that is the question many cooks have. One survey report published in the Journal of Food Protection found that 70 percent of people do it.

“People think they have to wash or rinse chicken before they cook it for many reasons—because their mama did it, they think they need to remove slime or blood, or they think it’s safer,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety and testing at Consumer Reports. “But doing this may actually increase your chances of getting food poisoning.”

Rogers’ assessment was backed up in a recent study from the Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service. 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 and found that those who washed or rinsed the bird were leaving a trail of bacteria around the kitchen. In real life, that's a situation that could make you or others sick. 

The study included only people who said they had washed chicken the last time they prepared it. Its main purpose was ­to test whether sending participants food safety messages before they came to the test kitchen, telling them not to wash chicken, would prevent them from doing so. But as part of the study, the researchers also spiked the chicken with a harmless strain of bacteria that acted like salmonella, then they traced where the bacteria went during the meal prep. 

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Being told not to wash chicken did stop the majority of people from doing so—only 7 percent of the people who got an email message washed the chicken during the test, compared with 61 percent of those who didn’t get an email.

In those who washed the chicken, 60 percent had bacteria in their sink afterward; 14 percent still had bacteria in the sink after cleaning it. And 26 percent of them transferred bacteria to the salad they were preparing, compared with 20 percent of those who didn’t wash.

The lettuce contamination caused by the people who didn’t wash their chicken probably came from improper handwashing, the researchers said. Just 25 percent of all the people in the study washed their hands every time they should have during meal prep, and only 2 percent did so correctly. The most common mistake was not rubbing their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds.

“Not following proper food safety precautions when you’re preparing chicken is risky,” says Rogers. “The chances are high that chicken you buy is contaminated with harmful bacteria, such as salmonella and campylobacter, and I always assume so when I’m prepping it.” 

Staying Safe

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. Only 4 percent of the people in this study performed all these steps correctly before they started to prep the meal.

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.

Do not wash the chicken. “You won’t remove salmonella or other bacteria that can cause illness if it is there, and, as this study shows, you only increase the risk of contaminating your kitchen or other food you’re preparing,” says Rogers. If there’s anything on the chicken you want to remove, pat it with a damp paper towel and then wash your hands immediately, the USDA advises.

Every time you touch raw meat, wash your hands afterward. “Washing or rinsing raw meat and poultry can increase your risk as bacteria spreads around your kitchen, but not washing your hands for 20 seconds immediately after handling those raw foods is just as dangerous,” says Carmen Rottenberg, administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Take care with kitchen utensils. Don’t use the same cutting board, knife, plate, or other utensil you used for raw meat on other foods. If you do, be sure to clean and sanitize the utensil before using it on the 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,” says Rogers. 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.