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The Great Chicken Debate: To Wash or Not?


Just about every cookbook icon, from Julia Child to Martha Stewart to the Joy of Cooking's Rombauer sisters, has told us to rinse off our raw chicken before preparing it.

Guess what? They were wrong, scientists say.

Rinsing raw chicken to get rid of the bacteria just spreads it around more, increasing our risk of getting sick, says food-safety researcher Jennifer Quinlan, with Drexel University  in Philadelphia and one of the developers behind a new " Don't Wash Your Chicken!" campaign.

Better to skip that step and just make sure the chicken (or any meat, actually) is cooked properly, because bacteria like salmonella are killed at high temperatures, she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been nagging us for years to stop rinsing, but their geeky campaign called "Separate, Don't Cross-Contaminate" hasn't exactly caught on.

Not only do surveys show that most cooks rinse raw chicken before cooking (myself included, I have to admit), but there are 1.8 million cases of food-borne illness a year from salmonella and campylobacter, the most common bacteria found on raw poultry and meat.

This worries Quinlan, a specialist in food-borne illness among older adults, because the consequences of food poisoning increase in our 50s "and especially for those 65 and older, who are at a much greater risk of hospitalization," she said in an interview.

To spread the don't-rinse message more effectively, the USDA gave a grant to researchers at Drexel and New Mexico State University to come up with something more catchy and to the point. The result is several online mini-drama videos and an animated germ-spraying graphic.


Want to know what happens when you rinse that raw chicken in the sink? Watch the (rather horrifying) 14-second "Germ-Vision" animation showing bacteria, represented by neon green goo, getting splashed on the cook, the counter, the paper towels, everywhere.

The animated graphic is based on an earlier "big, 100-page" study from the Compton Laboratory in the UK, said Quinlan, that tracked the spray of dyed droplets as raw chickens were rinsed off.

In addition to producing the videos, the U.S. researchers surveyed home cooks to find out exactly who was washing their raw chicken before preparing it. Turns out, it's just about everyone.

"We surveyed 400 adults in the Philadelphia area - 100 whites, 100 African Americans, 100 Asians and 100 Hispanics - and 85 to 90 percent reported washing their chicken before cooking," Quinlan said.

Granted, we should be careful about spreading around bacteria in our kitchen. But the source of most salmonella-caused illness and hospitalization is not unsanitary home kitchens -- or even chicken.

According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top three sources of salmonella-caused illnesses in 2009 to 2010 were eggs, sprouts and vegetables. The most hospitalizations were due to contaminated vegetables. In addition, more than twice as many outbreaks were traced to food eaten in restaurants (48 percent) than to food eaten at home (21 percent).

Longtime food safety attorney Bill Marler, who specializes in national food poisoning cases, says that in 20 years, "I have not seen a documented case of salmonella or campylobacter food poisoning linked to washing chicken or turkey."

However, he added in an email,  "all chicken and turkey are contaminated and washing them risks splashing bugs around your kitchen." He agrees with Quinlan. "Just take [poultry] directly from packaging to grill, oven or stove."

And then, of course, wash your hands.

The "Don't Wash Your Chicken!" campaign has certainly generated a lot of follow-up questions, many of which Quinlan recently answered on NPR. Among the advice:

  • Follow the "don't wash" rule for raw turkey, fish and red meat, as well.
  • Marinating doesn't kill bacteria, but the leftover marinade will contain bacteria. Throw it away.
  • Forget about running the water "slowly." It still causes bacteria to splash around.
  • If your chicken is too damp to brown properly, use a paper towel to blot up excess moisture. Then toss the towel.


Illustrative Photo: Courtesy Drexel University (

Chicken in Pot Photo: Nick Vedros & Assoc./Getty Images


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