Warning issued over washing raw chicken

Behind the Headlines

Monday June 16 2014

Washing raw chicken before cooking increases the likelihood of infection through splashing the bacteria on to work surfaces

Symptoms of campylobacter infection include abdominal pain

"Don't wash chicken before cooking it, warns Food Standards Agency," The Guardian reports. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued the advice as many people do not realise that washing raw poultry can spread bacteria, leading to an increased risk of food poisoning.

The bacteria in question, campylobacter, is the most common cause of food poisoning in the world and affects about 280,000 people in the UK each year.

New guidance is intended to remind people that washing raw chicken before cooking increases the likelihood of infection through splashing the bacteria on to work surfaces, clothing and cooking equipment. This is known as cross-contamination.

Washing is therefore not recommended – it is also unnecessary as thorough cooking will kill any bacteria.


Causes of food poisoning

Food can become contaminated at any stage during its production, processing or cooking by:

  • not cooking food thoroughly (particularly poultry, pork, burgers, sausages and kebabs)
  • not correctly storing food that needs to be chilled at below 5°C
  • keeping cooked food unrefrigerated for more than an hour  
  • eating food that has been touched by someone who is ill with diarrhoea and vomiting
  • cross-contamination (the spread of bacteria from contaminated foods), which can occur when washing raw poultry

Read more about the causes of food poisoning.

Who has issued the advice?

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued the guidance, which coincides with the start of this year's Food Safety Week. The FSA is the government department responsible for food safety and food hygiene across the UK.

They are trying to raise awareness of campylobacter infection because a survey of around 7,000 people found that while more than 90% of the public have heard of food poisoning from salmonella and E. coli, only 28% had heard of campylobacter. In fact, campylobacter causes more food poisoning than all the other major causes put together.


What is the advice?

The FSA is asking people to stop washing chicken before cooking it to reduce the incidence of campylobacter. The advice itself is not new, but the call has been issued after a survey found that 44% of people still wash chicken before cooking.

Other measures that are being taken by the FSA include:

  • working with farmers and producers to minimise the rates of campylobacter in chickens
  • minimising the levels of contamination in slaughterhouses and processors
  • ensuring caterers use preventative measures to reduce the risk of infection
  • asking TV production companies to ensure that programmes do not show anyone washing raw chicken

In addition, the major supermarkets have agreed to:

  • provide clearer information on their packs of raw chicken and turkey
  • have features on campylobacter in their magazines


What are the symptoms of campylobacter infection?

The typical symptoms are abdominal pain and diarrhoea, which occurs two to five days after infection.

The diarrhoea can sometimes contain blood. Other symptoms of campylobacter infection can include fever, headache, nausea and vomiting. It usually lasts for three to six days.


What are the potential dangers of campylobacter?

Campylobacter infection can be fatal in young children, the elderly and people who have a lowered immune system. Lowered immunity can occur as a result of health conditions such as HIV, or as a side effect of certain treatments, such as chemotherapy.

Complications of the infection include:


When should I seek medical advice for suspected food poisoning?

Most cases of food poisoning do not require medical treatment. However, you should seek medical advice if you have any of the following signs or symptoms:

  • vomiting that lasts more than two days
  • you are unable to keep liquids down for more than a day
  • diarrhoea that lasts for more than three days
  • blood in your vomit
  • blood in your stools
  • seizures (fits)
  • changes in your mental state, such as confusion
  • double vision
  • slurred speech
  • signs of severe dehydration, such as a dry mouth, sunken eyes, and an inability to pass urine, or passing small amounts of dark, strong-smelling urine

Always contact your GP if you get food poisoning during pregnancy. Extra precautions may be needed.


What is the best way to prepare raw chicken?

The FSA advises the public to:

  • cover and chill raw chicken
  • not wash raw chicken
  • wash used utensils
  • cook chicken thoroughly

Other measures that will reduce the risk of infection include:

  • washing hands with soap and warm water before cooking, after touching raw food, after touching the bin, and after going to the toilet
  • keeping raw food away from ready-to-eat foods
  • using different chopping boards for raw and ready-to-eat foods
  • keeping raw meat in a clean, sealed container on the bottom shelf of the fridge so it cannot drip on other foods

Read more advice about food safety.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter. Join the Healthy Evidence forum.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices


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