Tradition Versus Food Safety

— Written By Janice Fields and last updated by

We had a large chicken pen and coop when I was a child. We collected eggs and enjoyed the tastiest chicken dinners. I often watched and helped my mama when it came time to kill a chicken for “dinner.”  By the way, “dinner” was our midday meal. Killing a chicken for food included wringing the chicken’s neck, then starting a fire outside under a big black cast iron pot to clean the bird and get all the feathers off. At least that is how I remember it. As time passed, we no longer had “yard chickens,” yet washing the chicken before cooking remained a tradition. This is true for many of you today. You still think you must wash your chicken before cooking it.

Bathing your chicken, turkey, or any meat is no longer a recommended practice. Many will argue they are cleaning the nastiness off, but really, all you are doing is cross-contaminating any nearby surfaces with bacteria from that bird or meat. Just imagine this scenario:  you are in your kitchen washing the chicken, preparing it for cooking. You just pulled an apple pie out of the oven, and it is cooling on the counter a couple of feet away from the kitchen sink. On the other side of the sink is your son, prepping a salad. As the water from the faucet lands on your chicken, tiny microscopic droplets containing salmonella and campylobacter go flying through the air and land on the pie and salad. Keep in mind, they are microscopic, so you don’t see these bacteria droplets. Your pie and your salad are ready to eat, but it may be a couple of hours before mealtime, allowing lots of time for the bacteria to grow. Your yummy meal is now a time bomb for food poisoning. However, you may not ever know this, because it could be days before you have any symptoms.

Most government agencies follow this proven science and advise against washing chicken. Washing the chicken simply is not necessary, and you are more likely to spread bacteria all around the kitchen. If you must do something, consider taking a damp paper towel to wipe off any undesirable substance. Make a decision today to change – go ahead and shove that bird into the oven without washing it. This will decrease your food safety risk to practically zero…if you don’t cross-contaminate.

Don’t be a turkey this Thanksgiving — don’t wash any poultry or meat. Instead, choose the safest option for your family. Purchase a reliable thermometer and cook to the correct minimum internal cooking temperature. This is 165°F for all chicken, duck, and turkey; 160°F for all ground meats (except ground chicken and turkey); and 145°F for most meats, including pork. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Best of all, take time to create those special holiday memories with family and friends and delicious, safe food.

For more information, please contact Janice Fields, Extension Family and Consumer Sciences Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center, at 671-3276, by E-mail at, or visit our website.

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