Chicken Is America’s Most Popular Meat—but Barely Anyone Knows How to Cook It Safely

A new study shows that most of us abandon safety practices when we prepare poultry.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 30, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Considering that Americans will eat an estimated 83.5 pounds of poultry per person this year—more than any other type of meat—we’re decidedly terrible at handling our favorite bird in the kitchen. Despite the risks of salmonella, campylobacter, and other dangerous bacteria regularly found on poultry, many people fail to properly prep, handle, and cook chicken—a tendency confirmed by new research conducted at UC Davis that will be published in the next issue of the journal Food Protection Trends.

The researchers watched 120 participants cook a chicken dish in their own kitchen, observing the food-safety measures taken by the cooks. Although 48 percent of the people in the study said they had received training in food safety issues, the footage showed an array of potentially harmful behavior. The results of the study show that 38 percent of participants didn’t wash their hands after handling raw chicken, 50 percent washed the poultry before preparing it (likely splattering any bacteria present on the skin across the sink and countertop), and 40 percent undercooked the meat.

Foster Farms funded the study. The company was responsible for an ongoing outbreak of drug-resistant salmonella Heidelberg that has infected 574 people in 27 states since last March. Putting the onus on consumers to safely prepare chicken when Foster Farms appears incapable of or unwilling to produce a safe product is deeply cynical—but the results are notable nonetheless. It’s not like you opt out of dangerous bacteria by opting to not buy chicken raised in factory farm conditions; farmers market chicken is, alas, a dirty bird too.

Kitchen mistakes such as undercooking meat and forgetting to wash your hands are by no means new, but the consequences of mishandling chicken are becoming increasingly risky, if not deadly. Last December, a study conducted by Consumer Reports found that antibiotic superbugs were present on nearly half of 300 samples of raw chicken breast, and nearly all the meat contained some form of harmful bacteria. The rise of superbugs—bacteria that have developed resistance to the antibiotics that are commonly used both to treat infections in humans and to promote growth and prevent disease in livestock—now accounts for some 23,000 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of those infections are picked up in a hospital setting, but there are a whole lot of superbugs lurking in and on poultry too.

That’s a lot of doom and gloom, but the solutions aren’t only simple—they’re sure to make the chicken you eat taste better. Stop rinsing it before you cook it, and use a meat thermometer. Chicken skin doesn’t brown and crisp as readily if you get it wet, and the 15 bucks you spend on a decent instant-read meat thermometer will pay dividends in meat cooked to a perfectly juicy, perfectly done 165 degrees. According to the UC Davis study, fewer than half of the participants owned a meat thermometer. So forget about food safety. Focus on cooking wonderfully crisp, juicy chicken instead. Oh, and wash your hands.