Don’t wash chicken before cooking, new guidance warns
Washing raw chicken can lead to a dangerous form of food poisoning
With the barbecue season finally here, most people have taken on board official advice about how to cook chicken safely and thoroughly, so that the juices run clear and the flesh is steaming hot. But who knew you should never wash raw chicken?
Research from the Food Standards Agency shows that before cooking chicken, just under half of us do exactly that – often because our mothers did, or because we think it will get rid of “germs”.
But, according to the FSA, washing raw chicken can lead to a potentially dangerous form of food poisoning caused by Campylobacter bacteria, with contaminated droplets of water likely to spread the bugs on to work surfaces, clothing and cooking utensils.
Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning, accounting for about 280,000 cases annually – more than Salmonella,
E.coli and Listeria put together. “That is roughly a case every two or three minutes” explains Prof Sarah O’Brien, from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health.
“The main route of infection is through food and drink and the most common source is contaminated poultry. It is spread to humans by undercooking, but also by practices such as washing raw chicken.”
It’s easy to dismiss food poisoning as a common, usually mild affliction she says. “But Campylobacter can be a harrowing illness which can cause indescribable pain, inflammation and blood in the stool.”
Nor do you need to consume many Campylobacter microbes to get infected, says Prof O’Brien: 100 organisms, compared to 10,000 of salmonella. Those most at risk are the elderly, the under-fives and people taking antacid medication, which eliminates stomach acid that protects against infection.
Campylobacter infection can have long-term effects, with up to one quarter of sufferers developing irritable bowel syndrome; and it can also send the immune system into overdrive so that it attacks nerve cells, leading to arthritis and, in one-in-1,000 cases, a severe form of paralysis called Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Ann Edwards, 67, developed Guillain-Barré syndrome after contracting Campylobacter 17 years ago. She spent seven weeks in hospital, and was in a wheelchair for a further two years. Although much recovered, she still has no movement in her toes and uses a walking stick. “Physically, it was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she says.
In the meantime, it pays to be careful when dealing with chicken. Always cover and chill (store at the bottom of the fridge, the coldest part, and ensure it does not drip on to other foods); never wash it raw (cooking will kill any microbes); after handling, wash hands and utensils in hot soapy water; and cook thoroughly. You can test the juices are clear by cutting into the thickest part, near the leg, with a skewer or sharp knife.