Now reading Should You Wash Your Chicken or Not?

Should You Wash Your Chicken or Not?

Why a failed food safety scare campaign proves we need a better, more critical approach to kitchen guidelines.


This comes from our Chicken issue, on newsstands now. For more stories like this, subscribe to the magazine.

Did you get a whiff of the chicken shitstorm of August 2013? It was a brief but intense controversy (complete with the #chickenshitstorm hashtag, bestowed by Michael Ruhlman) over a USDA-funded public-relations campaign that warned against washing raw chicken before cooking. According to the Don’t Wash Your Chicken! crusade, most of the raw poultry we buy is contaminated with infectious bacteria from the animals’ guts, and washing splashes those bacteria all over the kitchen, where they can contaminate other foods and utensils and end up making us sick. In other words, raw chicken is too dirty to clean safely, so we should just slide it right from package to pan with whatever stale fluids and smells come with it, kill the bacteria with the heat of cooking—and enjoy!

The initial PR blast included a press release, a YouTube “Germ-Vision Animation” that simulated toxic chicken splatter in ghoulish fluorescent green, and four short Don’t Wash Your Chicken!videos and photo novellas, in which unwitting cooks were schooled and saved from washing just before they made their roast or oven-fry or stir-fry or mole. The blast had its intended effect and kicked up plenty of media gusts. NPR: “Julia Child Was Wrong: Don’t Wash Your Raw Chicken, Folks.” Slate: “Don’t Wash Your Chicken! No Matter What Your Cookbook Says.” Gizmodo: “Science Says Not to Wash Your Chicken Before You Cook It.”

These feature stories then provoked social-media winds of apocalyptic force—but in the opposite direction. Alton Brown tweeted to his (at the time)  Twitter followers a series of Post-it instructions for safe chicken preparation: after washing gently, “douse house with accelerant,” “burn down house to kill germs,” and “take o and nuke the entire site from orbit.” On Ruhlman’s website, there was a post called “Bacteria! Run Away! Run Away!”

Then an eerie calm set in. There was a follow-up “Don’t Panic!” blog post from NPR and some backpedaling from the chief campaigner. As the post paraphrased Drexel University nutrition-sciences professor Dr. Jennifer Quinlan, “If you rinse your chicken out of safety concerns, just stop,” she says, “because you are making it less safe. If you are doing it to enhance flavor, that’s fine, but use proper precautions.” This clarification, that the real problem with washing chicken is the cook’s misconceived motivation for washing, suggested that the campaign motto should have been Don’t Wash Your Chicken for the Wrong Reasons!

The storm passed, but without really clearing the air. Many cooks, myself included, continue to rinse chickens of old fluids and smells, to soak them in flavorful brines, massage them with butter, stuff them with herbs, and otherwise brave their bacterial load in the pursuit of deliciousness. Food-safety professionals continue to publish reports that categorize poultry washing as a food-safety “mistake.” And some have gone so far as to imply the possibility of combatting public violations with lawsuits.

For a study published in the November/December issue of Food Protection Trends, researchers at the USDA and UC Davis scrutinized four popular TV food shows and their hosts, by name. The researchers logged the purported violations committed on camera, which included not washing hands, not washing cutting boards, licking fingers, and washing—or even mentioning the washing of—meat or poultry. Noting first that food companies are increasingly likely to be held liable for causing illness and deaths, the study concludes: “In the future, will cooking programs also be held responsible if they fail to model safe-handling practices?”There’s a food trend to follow!

That ominous escalation got me to wondering about a couple of things. First: What evidence is there that washing chickens is a significant threat to public health? And then, to turn the study’s concluding sentence around: Should food-safety programs be held responsible if they fail to generate confidence and respect for their guidelines?

The evidence against chicken washing—what Science really has to say about it—turns out to be practically nonexistent. I scoured the food-safety literature for any studies of meat-washingsplatter and its contribution to the risk of foodborne illness. I found not a single peer-reviewed study—just one  report from Campden BRI, an independent British food-research consortium, with the title “Microbiological risk factors associated with the domestic handling of meat.” To analyze the risk posed by washing, the authors covered the work surfaces around a sink with paper, coated a chicken with red food dye, washed the chicken for ten seconds, and noted that red spots appeared on the paper as far as seventy centimeters, more than two feet, from the sink. That’s it! The report includes no actual microbiology to see whether splashing water picks up bacteria and carries them in significant numbers—a real question, since half of the argument against washing is that it doesn’t remove significant  numbers of bacteria from foods. Nor does it estimate the risk splashing might pose compared to less ambiguous hazards, like handling a leaky supermarket package of raw meat, or not washing hands diligently during cooking, or using the same towel to dry clean hands and not-so-clean countertops.

To make sure that I wasn’t missing something, I checked with half a dozen food-safety professionals. They generously responded with links, reports, and USDA information sheets—all of which assert the risk of washing meats, but don’t cite an actual study of the risk. Dr. Donald Scha ner, a professor at Rutgers, agreed that “definitive peer-reviewed data do not seem to exist.”

And I wasn’t entirely convinced by that Campden BRI report. As a longtime chicken-washer, I found it hard to believe that the water flies two feet from the sink. So I replicated that simulation in my own kitchen. I calibrated the flow rate from my faucet to match the report’s moderate thirty-five milliliters (about two tablespoons) per second, and put the chicken under the stream.

I did see some splashing outside the sink, but only when I held the chicken high up, almost level with the countertop, and put the faucet on spray mode so that its flow was accelerated through a couple dozen small holes. I also felt that splashing. I was standing less than a foot away from the bird, so of course my paper-coated shirt got wet with chicken rinse. Disgusting! When I did what I usually do, put the chicken on a plate at the bottom of the sink and let the water flow normally, there was no discernible splatter on the countertops or me.

My unsurprising conclusion: it’s possible to wash chicken carelessly, in a way that might spread contamination onto countertops and draining boards and the cook. It’s also possible to wash chicken carefully, in a way that confines its microbes largely to the sink, where other unclean things also get cleaned.

And the same is true for those other unclean things. Everything that goes into the sink, and the sink itself, can be washed carelessly or carefully. That includes hands, cutting boards, utensils, and scrubbing pads. It includes the vegetables and fruits that the food-safety pros say we should wash, and that are reported to be responsible for about as many annual cases of foodborne illness as meat and poultry.

It seems to me that instead of discouraging the laudable general impulse to start cooking with clean ingredients, and creating dubious categories of the should-be-washed and the unwashable, it makes much more sense to define and encourage careful washing and sink-faucet-towel work in general. And to do the definitive experiments to clarify what the real risks are, and what the best practices would be. As Dr. Schaffner at Rutgers wrote to me when he couldn’t find any studies of washing, “This is a research opportunity.” A big one!

The Don’t Wash Your Chicken! storm offers another kind of opportunity, an obvious occasion for the food-safety community to reevaluate the way it approaches its mission. The PR campaign garnered a lot of media play and views for its videos. But it also got spectacular blowback from respected figures with millions of followers in the cooking world.Inviting that kind of mockery, and then backpedaling on the message, only deepens confusion and doubt about food safety, and diminishes the credibility of its authorities. Nor is their image likely to be improved by sitting in judgment of popular food personalities and hinting at legal action.

We absolutely do need credible sources of information, and good practical advice. Foodborne illness kills thousands of people every year, and neither the food industry nor the USDA is doing all it could and should to make the food supply cleaner. If you’re not especially concerned about this, take a look at Lynne Terry’s award winning report “A Game of Chicken” in the Oregonian. During her investigation of several salmonella outbreaks over several years, all cases traced back to Foster Farms. In a follow-up to the story, she asked an Oregon epidemiologist for his advice on cooking chicken, and his answer was, “Treat it like hazardous waste.”

Sure, it’s a challenge to convince home cooks to keep invisible hazards in mind, or change daily habits, or correct misconceptions. That makes strategy especially important. Here are a few moves that have proved to be counterproductive: Misrepresent very preliminary science as settled scary fact. Discourage behavior that’s rooted in an instinct for cleanliness. Caricature what cooks actually do. Make strong statements and then mostly retract them. Provoke ridicule from leaders in the community you’re trying to influence.

What might be a more productive path? It seems pretty obvious: engage with people who actually cook. The safety pros should take a break from the echo chamber of technical conferences and journals to spend time with cooking pros, chefs, and Ruhlmans and Browns. They should visit the country’s best kitchens not to log violations, but to listen and learn, to understand why cooks handle food the way they do, how they think and feel about making tasty and attractive and wholesome things with their hands. They should invite collaboration on coherent, workable guidelines that the culinary pros can actually recommend to their communities.

One expert I particularly admire for his critical approach to safety guidelines wrote to me apropos of unnecessary and risky handling, saying that “the home cook sees the leftover innards of the chicken and thinks that they have to be removed… There really is no reason to remove the intestinal organs as a part of preparing the chicken/poultry for cooking.” This may be true from a strictly hygienic and nutritional point of view. But from that point of view, there’s no reason for most of the things that cooks do! Cooks may remove the innards from a chicken because they’re in an inedible bag, or because they hate innards, or because they love them and want to cook them perfectly. They go to the trouble of washing chickens, brining and massaging and stu ing them and tying them up, because they seek not just to detoxify foods, but to make them as delicious as they can be. Cooks have their own good reasons, and most eaters are glad they do.