The Problem With The USDA's Guidelines For Washing Chicken

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Do You Need To Wash Chicken Before You Cook It?Sloniki / iStock / Getty Images Plus; Kanawa_Studio / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Chicken is the most popular protein in America, but it still makes many home cooks squeamish. People come up with viral hacks to remove chicken tendons. Some folks carefully dodge any potential bones and connective tissue. But nothing evokes more fear than Salmonella. The CDC estimates that Salmonella causes more cases of foodborne illness than any other bacteria.

To mitigate the risk of Salmonella exposure, government agencies offer guidelines for proper food preparation. Cooking poultry to an internal temperature of 165° and thoroughly washing your hands, utensils, and surfaces are widely practiced. But there’s one recommendation that is significantly more contentious.

For years, government agencies in the United States have stated that cooks should never wash chicken. Rinsing raw poultry under running water can splash and spread disease-causing bacteria to other surfaces in your kitchen. In turn, those germs can contaminate other foods. While the science presents a convincing argument against washing raw meat, the subject is much more nuanced.

Why Some People Wash Their Chicken

In some communities in the United States and other countries, thoroughly cleaning raw meat is a common practice that’s been observed for generations. This cultural custom is particularly prevalent in the Latin and Caribbean diasporas. Its roots are complex but can partially be attributed to older methods of meat processing. Meat sourced from live poultry houses and butcher shops can often come with feathers, bone fragments, and other remnants of the living animal. After plucking and priming the meat, washing off any other external contaminants became a logical next step.

“Chicken is usually washed in vinegar or citrus juice,” says Delish’s food director and second-generation Jamaican-American Rob Seixas. “The acid is believed to purify the meat.”

Even now, when most raw meat is already processed and sold in a plastic-wrapped styrofoam package, the practice continues. Some people are motivated by maintaining family tradition, while many others wash their poultry out of a distrust in the system.

“If we want to go deep into the reasons, it’s a cultural response to the effects of colonialism,” says Seixas. “It’s more emotional and psychological.” And if you ever learned about the horrors of industrial meat processing in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the concerns aren’t necessarily unfounded.

We’ve come a long way from the disease-ridden stockyards of the early 20th century, but federal reports today claim that nearly 4 percent of chicken sold in U.S. supermarkets is contaminated with Salmonella. American processing plants also use chemical means to disinfect meat that are banned in the European Union, among other regions. And with consumers so far removed from the process that brings chicken to their kitchen table, taking the extra step to wash it can provide some peace of mind.

What Does The USDA Say?

Federal health organizations previously adopted a firm stance against the custom of washing raw meat. And the USDA has published several scientific studies that back up their position, leading many to vilify the cultural practice of cleaning meat altogether.

But let's be honest: we don't necessarily follow every guideline they set. The USDA also says we need to cook steak to 145°—that doesn't mean we all eat our ribeyes medium well.

A 2019 study commissioned by the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service found that similar levels of cross-contamination happened in kitchens that washed their chicken and kitchens that didn't. The main culprit wasn't the rinsed meat; it was insufficient hand washing.

As a result of the study, the USDA has amended their guidelines to be more accommodating to these widespread cultural traditions. They still advise against washing raw meat. But they now add the caveat that all households should properly clean and sanitize their work spaces, whether they wash their chicken or not.

So, should you wash chicken? If it's not culturally significant to you, no. Regardless of how you prepare raw meat, we should all be using a food-safe bleach-based solution when cleaning to kill any lingering bacteria in our kitchens.

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