It's an age-old debate that has divided the culinary community and earlier this year sparked a lively debate on social media: To wash or not to wash raw poultry.
Legendary chef Julia Child was a proponent of washing raw chicken, and often advised viewers of her cooking shows to do the same.
But health experts have for years advised against washing raw poultry and on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued their strongest warning yet after a new study by the federal agency revealed just how easily bacteria can spread to other foods and surfaces.
The USDA says bacteria on raw chicken, like salmonella, ride misting water droplets out from the sink in a process known as "aerosolization," splattering the food-prep area in a 2-3 foot radius.
The agency's study found that of the participants who washed their raw poultry, 60% had bacteria in their sink after rinsing the poultry and 14% still had bacteria after they attempted to sanitize it. Even more concerning, according to the USDA, 26% of participants who washed raw poultry transferred bacteria from that raw poultry to their ready-to-eat salad lettuce.
"The public health implications of these findings should be of concern to everyone," said Dr. Mindy Brashears, the USDA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. "Even when consumers think they are effectively cleaning after washing poultry, this study shows that bacteria can easily spread to other surfaces and foods. The best practice is not to wash poultry."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raw poultry is often contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria like Campylobacter, and, less frequently, salmonella and Clostridium perfringens.
Eating undercooked chicken, or anything contaminated by raw chicken and its juices can lead to food poisoning, the CDC warns. The USDA estimates that millions of Americans are sickened with food-borne illnesses each year, resulting in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
The USDA recommends three steps to take to help prevent illness when preparing poultry, or meat, at home.
- Significantly decrease your risk by preparing foods that will not be cooked, such as vegetables and salads, before handling and preparing raw meat and poultry.
- Thoroughly clean and sanitize any surface that has potentially touched or been contaminated from raw meat and poultry, or their juices. Clean sinks and countertops with hot soapy water and then apply a sanitizer. Wash hands immediately after handling raw meat and poultry. Wet your hands with water, lather with soap and then scrub your hands for 20 seconds.
- Destroy any illness causing bacteria by cooking meat and poultry to a safe internal temperature as measured by a food thermometer. Beef, pork, lamb and veal (steaks, roasts and chops) are safe to eat at 145°F. Ground meats (burgers) are safe to eat at 160°F. Poultry (whole or ground) are safe to eat at 165°F.
In May, the CDC sparked a debate on social media after advising people to not wash raw chicken. In a tweet, the CDC urged consumers to avoid washing raw chicken saying that "during washing, chicken juices can spread in the kitchen and contaminate other foods, utensils, and countertops."
Some users called the advice "terrible" and vowed to keep washing their chicken, hands and sink. However, the USDA notes in its report titled "Washing Raw Poultry: Our Science, Your Choice," that traces of bacteria were still found in sinks after participants attempted to clean them. The USDA says the debate in favor of washing raw poultry is not backed by science.
But if you've been rinsing your chicken your whole life, don't feel too bad: A Drexel University survey found 90 percent of Americans do the same, NBC News reported.
The CDC has more details on salmonella prevention on its website.