Washing raw chicken won't clean it - it may make you sick

It's the gooey bits on raw chicken that compel Rita Ross to rinse it off in her kitchen sink before cooking it.

"There's this little film between the skin and meat that I don't like. It's kind of like slime," Ross, 63, of Raleigh, North Carolina, said. "I just feel like washing it makes it cleaner."

The problem with rinsing raw chicken, however, is that instead of making it "cleaner," it splatters potentially harmful bacteria onto kitchen counters and even other food that's already been properly washed and ready to eat.

That's according to research published Tuesday by the Department of Agriculture.

"A lot of people prepare their salads around the sink, so it's cross-contaminated," said Mindy Brashears, deputy undersecretary for food safety at the USDA.

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9 Foods You Should Never Eat Raw
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9 Foods You Should Never Eat Raw

So read on to learn about nine foods that you shouldn’t eat raw, and why.

Chicken

Between the processing plant and the supermarket, raw chicken can pick up lots and lots of nasty little bugs that can send you to the hospital if eaten, so you should make sure that all chicken is cooked to at least 165 degrees. And there’s no need to rinse off chicken before you cook it: the bacteria will be killed during cooking, and the splashing water could infect your whole kitchen.

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Chaya

Chaya is a "superfood" found in the Yucatan that was a favorite of the Mayans but hasn’t really caught on in the United States (yet). It’s similar to spinach, only it’s much stronger-tasting and only very small quantities of it can be eaten raw. Why? The leaves contain cyanide, which is obviously a deadly poison in large quantities. Boiling the leaves for five minutes neutralizes the toxin.

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Yucca

Just like Chaya, yucca (or cassava root) also contains cyanide, or cyanogenic glycosides to be exact. High levels of the toxin are found in its leaves, which prevents it from being eaten by insects and animals, but some also makes its way into the edible root as well. In order to make this starchy tuber edible, it must be dried, soaked in water, rinsed, and cooked as soon as possible after harvest.

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Eggs

Sure, Rocky might down raw eggs on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean it’s smart. While they’re loaded with protein, raw eggs also have the possibility of containing salmonella, which infects about one out of every 30,000 eggs. And because it’s in the yolk, those who are concerned should never eat their yolks runny either.

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Pits/Seeds of Apples, Mangos, Peaches, Pears, and Apricots

These you really shouldn’t eat at all; forget about cooking them first. If you crack open seeds and pits from fruits that contain them, the inside is soft and appears to be edible. But don’t eat it: it contains a chemical called amygdalin that can turn into — you guessed it — cyanide (who knew that so many foods contained cyanide?). Thankfully, you’d need to eat a whole lot of peach pits in order to get sick, but we wouldn’t chance it.

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Green Potatoes

You know how sometimes older potatoes can begin to turn a funky shade of green? Yeah, you don’t want to eat that part. When potatoes get too much sunlight, a chemical called solanine can build up to toxic levels, and that’s what the green is. If consumed, it can lead to headache, fatigue, nausea, and stomach issues. Store your potatoes in a cool, dry place and you’ll avoid this problem.

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Pork

Pork no longer needs to be cooked to well-done, but you should still cook it past the medium point. Pork still has the potential to carry a couple of bugs: trichinosis, a roundworm; and pork tapeworm, which can grow up to 6 feet long in the gut of a pig. If the meat is eaten undercooked, it can transmit the parasite to you, with some unpleasant side effects. These diseases largely hail from the days when pigs were allowed to eat garbage, and have largely been eradicated by modern processing. It’s still risky, though, and rare pork doesn’t taste very good, either.

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Raw Red Kidney Beans

If you were to take a few raw kidney beans off the vine and eat them, not only would they taste gross, but within a couple hours you’d be nauseous, vomiting, and have an upset stomach. The culprit? A natural toxin called lectin. Soak the beans in water for at least five hours before cooking and you’ll be fine.

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Rhubarb Leaves

You might have heard that rhubarb is poisonous when raw, but it’s actually the leaves you should avoid at all costs. The leaves contain insanely high levels of a toxin called oxalic acid, which when consumed can cause serious kidney damage, and possibly even death. Even a small amount can make you sick, and 10 or so pounds is enough to kill you.

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The USDA partnered with North Carolina State University to investigate how home cooks handle raw meat, and how those practices affect nearby food.

The researchers recruited 300 people to prepare chicken and a salad in test kitchens at N.C. State. Some participants watched food safety videos ahead of time that discouraged rinsing raw chicken. Most of those participants followed the advice.

But among the control group — those who did not get the safety messages — 61 percent rinsed their raw meat. And nearly 30 percent of those participants' salads were later found to be contaminated with bacteria from the chicken.

"How many times have you been peeling a vegetable and drop it into the sink, and you just pick it up and go on," Brashears said. "At that point, you've contaminated your vegetables."

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Don't Get Food Poisoning! Ten Tips to Help Avoid It
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Don't Get Food Poisoning! Ten Tips to Help Avoid It

Exposure to air is the enemy of food storage, and if a seal is broken or a can is dented, that’s a good sign that air (and potential foodborne pathogens) are making their way in. Bulges can be a sign of rampant bacterial activity inside the can. Even if the food looks okay when you open the can, don’t eat it.

Wash Your Hands

Always wash your hands before eating anything, because if you don’t, you’ll also be eating everything that you’ve touched since the last time you washed your hands. Be especially careful if you’ve handled raw meat — in that case, wash your hands before you touch anything else, not just food.

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Look Out for Cross-Contamination

If you’ve cut up raw chicken on a cutting board, common sense should tell you not to go ahead and prepare a salad with that same knife and cutting board without thoroughly washing them first. If anything’s come in contact with raw meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, make sure it gets a thorough scrubbing with soap and hot water.

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Cook Meats Thoroughly

Eating undercooked meat, especially chicken, can be a one-way ticket to the emergency room. Make sure that all poultry is cooked to 165 degrees and fish to 145 degrees (sashimi and tartares excepted, of course). And if you’re going to be cooking that steak medium-rare, make sure that it’s from a good source; if you have any doubt, cook it to 160 degrees.

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Refrigerate Perishable Food

Once perishable food has been sitting out for more than two hours, it becomes a world-class bacteria breeding ground. Cheese dip that’s been on that party table for six hours, we’re looking at you.

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Throw Raw Meat Away After Two Days

Raw meat is far more susceptible to infestation by bacteria and viruses than cooked meat, and even if it’s in your fridge, it can still go bad. Buy meat on the day you’re planning on cooking it, and don’t leave it in your fridge for longer than overnight. If you know you won’t be using it for a few days, freeze it.

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Use Common Sense

The “smell test” is often your first line of defense against food poisoning. If something smells a little funky, don’t risk it. If you take a bite and something seems a little off, throw it out. Trust your instincts; they’re usually correct.

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Only Drink Treated Water

“Don’t drink the water” is often the first thing you’ll hear when traveling to a foreign country, and it’s true: you haven’t had any time to build up immunity to potential toxins in the water like the locals have, so stick with the bottled stuff. In the same vein, never drink water from wells, streams, any other source that hasn’t been treated in some way, like chlorination.

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Watch Out for Broken Seals or Dented or Bulging Cans

Exposure to air is the enemy of food storage, and if a seal is broken or a can is dented, that’s a good sign that air (and potential foodborne pathogens) are making their way in. Bulges can be a sign of rampant bacterial activity inside the can. Even if the food looks okay when you open the can, don’t eat it.

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Don’t Eat Wild Mushrooms

This should go without saying, but if you’re out hiking and happen upon a funny-looking mushroom — or even one that you're pretty sure is one of those chanterelles or porcini that cost so much in the market — please resist the urge to eat it unless you're an experienced mycologist. It could be toxic, and eating a toxic mushroom can result in consequences from hallucinations to extreme discomfort to death.

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Cook Frozen Foods Thoroughly

There’s a reason why frozen foods always indicate cooking times on the package, and it’s not just because that's how long they take to heat up. Frozen foods, even if they’re cooked first, should still be considered raw, and need to be cooked thoroughly before serving. Even if you’re getting impatient, make sure your frozen foods heat for the specified time. Lukewarm food tastes even worse when served with a side of food poisoning.

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Microbiological horror stories

Some of the participants "washed" their chicken by soaking it in the sink, either with water only, or adding soap, vinegar or lemon juice.

"These are horror stories from a microbiological standpoint," said Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and professor at N.C. State. Chapman said there's no good evidence that soaking raw chicken in vinegar or lemon juice kills bacteria.

"What surprised me most was just how much food preparation happens in and around a sink after someone washes chicken," he said. Often participants rinsed lettuce in a colander in the sink where they'd just had raw chicken.

Contaminated water from the basin then splashes onto the lettuce. "We in the food safety community didn't really have a good sense of this until the work we did here," said Chapman.

No one ate the food prepared in the studies. Investigators went into the test kitchens after the meals were prepared, swabbing the sinks and counters, finding them contaminated even after participants cleaned them.

Spice containers also showed signs of contamination.

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18 things in your home that are covered with germs
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18 things in your home that are covered with germs

Sink: It’s where all your kitchen dirt goes (we hope). In fact, it’s home to as many as 500,000 bacteria per square inch. Spray it down often, clean out your food trap, and scrub with scouring powder like Bon Ami at least once a week.

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Cutting boards: Whether you’re chopping meat, veggies or fruit, your cutting board could be Ground Zero for foodborne illness. Prevent cross-contamination by dedicating one board to meats and another to produce. And always wash your board ASAP after using it—especially if you were working with raw meat. Researchers at UC Davis also recommend plastic cutting boards over wood, because they’re easiest to sanitize—they can go in the dishwasher. Clean a wooden cutting board with soap and warm water, dry it quickly, and seal it with butcher-block oil whenever you notice the wood is drying out.

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Countertops: All the action—chopping, mixing, drink-pouring—happens here, so of course they’re covered with little particles of everything. First off, cut the clutter to give crumbs and germs fewer places to hide. Then wipe them with a damp microfiber cloth after every meal.

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Fridge shelves and drawers: Your refrigerator is home to both raw and cooked foods, and if it’s disorganized, they probably come in contact now and then. Store raw meat in a plastic bag to serve as an extra barrier, and stop spoiled food from turning into science experiments by throwing it away as soon as you notice it. Another cool trick we use at our house: Empty and wipe down the shelves and drawers whenever you do a big grocery shop.

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Sponges: They’ve been banned from commercial kitchens—ban them from yours, too. But if you must use a sponge, rinse it with hot water after every swipe. At the end of every day, get it wet and nuke it in the microwave for a minute. Toss it after a few weeks (one week if you’re missing the daily sanitizing routine).

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Dish towels: If you rush through washing your hands, some germs may still be hanging out on them and you’ll transfer those germs to the dish towel. Change dish towels a few times a week, and wash them with hot water when you do the laundry.

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Makeup brushes: They touch your face every day, coming in contact with oils, bacteria and dead skin cells. Wash them with mild soap whenever you notice makeup buildup.

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Towels: Like dish towels, they pick up any germs left after a shower. Plus, if your bathroom has poor air circulation, towels may get musty if they stay damp too long. Wash them in hot water at least once a week.

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Tub: The equivalent of the kitchen sink for your bod, the tub takes in a lot of grime. Wipe it down with a microfiber cloth every day and get rid of mold spots with baking soda or vinegar. (Find dozens more ways to clean with baking soda here.)

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​​​Floor around the toilet: It gets splashed, plain and simple. For starters, make sure to put the lid down every time you flush. Clean up noticeable spots right away and scrub with bathroom cleaner at least once a week.

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Faucet handles: You touch these before your hands are clean. ‘Nuff said. Wipe them down with a damp microfiber cloth.

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Toothbrush holder: It’s all about gravity: Many of the germs on your toothbrush drip into the holder. Rinse it out daily—do double-duty while you’re brushing your teeth with the other hand. Then sanitize your toothbrush holder in the dishwasher (if it can take it) or give it a good scrub with soap and water.

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Electronics: Smartphones, keyboards, mice, the remote control (OK, let’s be real: 17 remote controls)—germy fingers come in contact with them all the time. In fact, the National Institutes of Health recently found that cellphones are 10 times dirtier than toilet seats. Wipe them with a damp microfiber cloth as often as possible. Don’t forget to remove any cases so you can clean underneath.

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Doorknobs, handles and light switches: Even if your hand only touches these items for a fraction of a second, that’s enough time to transfer bacteria. Once again, a quick wipe-down with a damp microfiber cloth will do.

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Shoe rack: Footwear is a huge culprit for bringing germs into your home, so it’s no surprise that their storage unit is a bacterial breeding ground. Put some elbow grease into cleaning this one and wipe it with bathroom cleaner—you never know what somebody stepped in.

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Carpets and rugs: Even if you’re using the no-shoes rule, carpets suck up every crumb, dead skin cell and germ that hits them. Vacuum weekly and spritz high-traffic areas with a carpet sanitizer. If you can toss rugs into the laundry, do it.

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Bags: Your purse holds money (super dirty!) and your kid’s lunch bag holds food (raise your hand if you ever forget to clean it out over the weekend). Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on cleaning these to keep them in the best shape.

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Toys: No matter whose toys they are—your kid’s or the dog’s—they probably spend a lot of time in somebody’s mouth. Consider what they’re made of, then clean accordingly, tossing them in the laundry, dishwasher, or wiping with a cloth.

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The CDC estimates that 48 million people — one in six — get sick from a foodborne illness each year.

Salmonella is the kind of bacteria most people associate with raw poultry, and leads to about a million illnesses in the U.S. annually, according to the CDC. Most have diarrhea, a fever and stomach cramps, and most recover, but nearly 400 die each year from salmonella.

Another type of bacteria, campylobacter, is also found on raw or under-cooked poultry, and accounts for about 1.3 million illnesses every year.

Even food safety experts are at risk. "I had campylobacter about a decade ago," Chapman said. "I won't go into details, but it was not fun whatsoever."

"I always saw my mom and dad do it"

The chicken-washing phenomenon is nothing new. Indeed, it's been happening in kitchens for decades.

"Growing up, I always saw my mom and dad do it," said Ashley Williams, 23, a grad student at N.C. State.

The USDA and N.C. State recreated the study to illustrate their findings for NBC News. Both Williams and Ross were participants, and both rinsed their raw chicken.

"I've just always done it this way," Ross said. "That's what people around me did when I was growing up. I picked it up from the culture."

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And it's likely those decades of chicken-washing caused illnesses that went unreported.

"You've probably gotten sick from food and just don't know it," Brashears said. "People say, 'Oh, I had a 24-hour flu' and never went to the doctor."

Children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are most at risk for foodborne illness.

Food safety experts say it's critical to re-educate the next generation, and get kids into the kitchen to teach them not only how to cook, but how to do it safely.

"Just because your mom did it doesn't mean you have to do it," said Brashears. "You can be the one who causes change and stops the cycle of foodborne illness."

Other ways to reduce the risk of cross-contamination include:

  • washing hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with soap and water, drying hands with a paper towel, then throwing the paper towel away
  • sanitizing the sink and kitchen counters before and after food preparation
  • using a meat thermometer to make sure chicken reaches 165 degrees
  • using separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat and other food.

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