Why do we do it? My mother did it, that’s why.
Washing chicken before you cook it seems logical…we wash our hands and our fruits and vegetables, so why not chicken?
Campylobacter is why not.
No, it’s not a newly-discovered dinosaur, it’s a very serious strain of food poisoning that is caused by bacteria living in raw poultry 80 percent of the time.
By washing chicken and other poultry before cooking, the bacteria causing the contamination are spread everywhere the water droplets go: on the counter, in the sink, on the floor, sprayed on adjacent cooking utensils—everywhere.
The United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency issued a bulletin urging cooks not to wash raw chicken. Campylobacter is a lesser-known type of food poisoning but it is just as dangerous as the more infamous E. coli and salmonella.
It can cause the expected vomiting, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal distress of other types of food poisoning but there have been cases of reactive arthritis, nervous system failure, and even death. An estimated 1.3 million cases of campylobacter poisoning occurs in the US every year.
This Warning Isn’t Limited to Just Chicken.
The United States Department of Agriculture advises not to wash any raw meat.
Cooking meats thoroughly will kill any bacteria that may have been present when raw. That’s not to say you shouldn’t wash your hands and preparation surface both before and after handling raw meat—those are still a necessary practice for safe food handling.
Other Sources of Contamination
Campylobacter can be found in animals other than birds, raw milk, or anything contaminated with the bacteria, including untreated water. They can be spread not only through ingestion but close contact from animals (including pets) to people and from people to people.
Most people who become infected can ride out the sickness but those whose immune systems are compromised can suffer more severe complications. There is no cure or treatment for campylobacteriosis but, as with any food poisoning, hydration is important.
Clear fluids will help flush out the germs and keep you from becoming dehydrated; in advanced cases of dehydration, hospitalization may be necessary for intravenous rehydration. Severe dehydration has its own set of difficulties.
Here’s a video with people talking about the real life effects of food poisoning bug known as campylobacter:
Better Safe Than Sorry
Other than putting your food under a microscope, there is no way to tell if it is contaminated with campylobacter—it will look and smell normal.
Safe food handling is your best bet to protect yourself from getting sick: keep clean surfaces for food preparation, keep raw animal products segregated from other foods, and cook foods from animals completely.
And, of course, wash your hands with hot soapy water before and after handling food and when switching from the preparation of one food to another. There is no need to use antibacterial soap; regular soap works fine. As a matter of fact, the use of antibacterial soap in general causes more harm than good and should be avoided.
So while the bacterium is not new, advice for how to avoid spreading it is.