The Scientist: Jennifer Quinlan, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition sciences at Drexel University
The Answer: Despite what your mother or the Food Network may have taught you, washing your chicken before you cook it does more harm than good.
Between three and 13 percent of commercial chicken harbor salmonella (some estimates are as high as 50 percent), and upwards of 70 percent contain the bacteria campylobacter. Chickens can carry these pathogens without getting sick. The problem: These bacteria do make humans sick. When chicken is processed for sale, the salmonella and campylobacter in their systems become dispersed throughout the thighs, breasts and wings you buy at the store.
These bacteria don’t have legs, so they can’t simply jump off a piece of raw poultry — they need a vehicle. An obvious one is your hands, which is why it’s so important to scrub up after handling raw chicken. A less obvious but no less dangerous way of mobilizing the bacteria? Water. Some people rinse their chicken to get rid of blood, fat, feces or other “yucky stuff,” while some just do it because that's how they were taught. Whatever the reason, water splashing off a piece of chicken can transfer pathogens from the meat to your sink, counter or clothes. (It’s unlikely to find fecal matter on commercial chicken, anyway.) Cooking chicken to a temperature of 165 degrees kills harmful bacteria, so that’s all you have to do to keep you and your family from getting sick.
To ensure that you don’t spread bacteria, the safest way to prepare chicken is in its packaging. Simply toss it out when you’re done. If you use a cutting board, move it right into the dishwasher afterward, or wash it (and your hands, the counter and the knife) with hot soapy water. Hot water, soap and friction are your best bets for getting clean and staying healthy.
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