Everyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of food safety knows: raw meat needs to be handled and cooked carefully, in case of possible bacterial contamination, and raw chicken requires careful handling even by raw-meat-handling standards.
You also know to guard against the possibility of cross-contamination: don't slice raw vegetables on the same cutting board you use to slice raw chicken, wash your hands and utensils carefully after they come in contact with raw chicken, and so forth.
Cross-contamination from raw chicken is a bigger threat than many people might realize, with the potential to contaminate areas of your kitchen that never even made direct contact with any poultry. Luckily, that particular threat is fairly easy to avoid: if you're cooking with raw chicken, don't wash it first.
On June 16, the United Kingdom's Food Standard Agency put out a news update urging people who wash raw chicken before cooking to stop doing so:
We have issued a call for people to stop washing raw chicken to reduce the risk of contracting campylobacter, a potentially dangerous form of food poisoning. The call comes as new figures show that 44% of people always wash chicken before cooking it – a practice that can spread campylobacter bacteria onto hands, work surfaces, clothing and cooking equipment through the splashing of water droplets.
Campylobacter is the most common form of food poisoning in the UK, affecting an estimated 280,000 people a year.
But is it also a problem in America? The Centers for Disease Control say yes:
Campylobacter is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the United States. Most cases occur as isolated, sporadic events, not as part of recognized outbreaks. … about 14 cases are diagnosed each year for each 100,000 persons in the population. Many more cases go undiagnosed or unreported, and campylobacteriosis is estimated to affect over 1.3 million persons every year. Campylobacteriosis occurs much more frequently in the summer …. Although Campylobacter infection does not commonly cause death, it has been estimated that approximately 76 persons with Campylobacter infections die each year.
Campylobacter can also lead to reactive arthritis and a serious nervous-system disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome. Britain's FSA warning against washing raw chicken included the cautionary anecdote of Ann Edwards, a 67-year-old Englishwoman who caught camplylobacter in 1997 and eventually developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, leaving her partially paralyzed from the chest down.
Not the first
The FSA's anti-wash warning is not the first, however. Last August, NPR's food blog ran a story saying “Julia Child was wrong: don't wash your raw chicken” and spoke to Drexel University food researcher Jennifer Quinlan, who said “There's no reason, from a scientific point of view, to think you're making it any safer ... in fact, you're making it less safe.”
Studies have shown that when you rinse raw meat, bacteria can fly up to three feet away, due to the spattering of water droplets too small to even see.
So there's one bit of good news for harried cooks here: if you're preparing chicken and the recipe calls for you to wash the raw bird before you start preparing it, skipping that step is not a lazy shortcut, but the healthy and responsible thing to do.