PhotoIn an opinion piece for Food Safety News, Dr. Mel Kramer mentions a modest proposal for new USDA food-labeling guidelines: require all chicken to carry the warning “Caution. Improper cooking of this product may be hazardous to your health.”

The potential dangerousness of undercooked chicken is pretty well-known (in the old cartoon sitcom King of the Hill, there was a one-off joke about how very ill the Hank Hill character became, that time his not-too-intelligent wife tried making “chicken tartare”), yet this knowledge does not prevent periodic salmonella outbreaks.

For example: in October 2013, Costco had to recall a large quantity of rotisserie chicken products sold in southern California, due to salmonella contamination.

Chicken containing salmonella is still safe to eat, provided it is cooked in its entirety to a sustained temperature of 165 degrees (which is fatal to pathogens like salmonella). Presumably the rotisserie chickens had some slightly cooler internal pockets offering shelter to salmonella germs, though of course, even undercooked chicken wouldn't be a problem if there were no salmonella present in the first place.

Unfortunately, according to Kramer, up to 50 percent of all federally inspected poultry tests positive for salmonella; given current technological limits, completely eradicating salmonella from the pre-cooked chicken supply would not be possible without irradiating all of it, currently a highly controversial notion.

What to do

Unless and until this happens, however, you can protect yourself by following basic food-handling and preparation guidelines:

  • Keep all chicken refrigerated or frozen.
  • Thaw frozen chicken in the refrigerator or microwave.
  • Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods, to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Wash working surfaces (including cutting boards), utensils, and hands after touching raw meat or poultry.
  • Cook thoroughly to achieve an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Keep hot foods hot, and refrigerator or discard all leftovers immediately.

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