How Safe Is Chicken?

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When you cook chicken, you are probably careful to cook it thoroughly. You probably also know to use bleach or other disinfectant on your cutting board and knife, or any surface with which the raw poultry has come in contact. And of course, you have to wash your hands before preparing the salad. Why all the precautions?

The problem is, many chickens are contaminated with bacteria. Thorough cooking and cleanliness are supposed to protect you from these germs, but is that enough? Why is raw chicken so unsafe, or is it?


According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), stringent inspection of chicken carcasses prior to their being up for sale in the store means that bacterial contamination is usually the result of how the chicken is handled by the food preparer.

However, it’s worth noting that chicken eggs also have been found to contain bacteria inside the shell, and bacterial contamination can penetrate the meat to the bone – this indicates the presence of bacteria on the farm and inside the chicken long before the cook gets a hold of it.

The FSIS notes this list of food-borne bacteria associated with chicken.

* Salmonella is found in chickens’ intestinal tracts and can also be found in chickens’ eggs.

* Staphylococcus aureus is carried by humans on their hands or in their nasal passages, and is introduced to poultry by unsanitary preparation of chicken dishes.

* Campylobacter jejuni is the number one cause of diarrhea in people. It is destroyed by thorough cooking.

* Listeria monocytogenes is also destroyed by high temperatures and thorough cooking, but even cooked chicken can be contaminated if the cook does not use good hygienic practices.

While the FSIS does not list it, Escherichia coli (E. coli) has also been found on or in raw poultry and can cause severe illness.

Making Chicken Safer

So is anything being done to make chicken safer before it gets into the hands of the cook? Yes, there are some regulations and technologies in place to make chicken safer.

* Biosensors are a relatively new (early 2000) technology that can detect, or sense, bacterial presence in poultry via fiber optic technology.

* Government regulations require all chicken processors to test their chicken carcasses for the presence of bacteria.

* The washing of carcasses has proven effective at removing superficial bacteria. Solutions used to wash raw chickens, sometimes experimentally, are acidified electrolyzed oxidizing water, sodium hypochlorite, or chlorine dioxide.

* Irradiation was approved by the FDA in 1992 as a means by which the number of bacteria on chicken could be reduced. If this method was used, it must say so on the label.

Is Organic Chicken Safer?

The safety of chicken products does have much to do with what happens in the kitchen, but farming and slaughtering practices have a significant effect on the number and kind of bacteria present in chicken.

Organic farms tend to be smaller and the chickens kept in healthier, less crowded conditions. Thus, there is less chance of cross-contamination between chickens. Bacteria are less likely to flourish in this kind of environment than they are on large, conventional chicken farms. Organic chicken farms feed their chickens organic feed and usually allow them to range outdoors, boosting their nutrition and health.

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