Chicken is the most popular meat in the U.S., where Americans buy approximately 83 pounds of chicken per person each year. It’s a lean protein source that can be prepared in a number of ways. But it can also make people sick.
An estimated 48 million people get sick from foodborne illnesses each year. These illnesses can come from bacteria such as salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli. All three of these pathogens are present in chicken – both the meat and the animal.
So, in honor of National Chicken Month, let’s look at some ways to prevent getting sick from chicken!
Backyard chickens are increasing in popularity. People are more interested in where their eggs come from, and more towns across America are allowing chickens to be raised (in small numbers) in the residential yards. However, many people do not realize that live chickens carry dangers, too.
Live chickens can pass on pathogens to their human caretakers. Between January and August 2017, there were over 900 reported cases of salmonella that were attributed to live chickens, including 200 hospitalizations and 1 reported death. While many cases of salmonellosis will pass – after bouts of diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever – other people may need to be hospitalized. In some cases, it can even be fatal, especially for the really young and really old.
To avoid salmonella and other bacteria from live chickens:
- Always wash your hands after handling them.
- Keep the animals in a controlled setting, like a chicken coop, and clean it regularly. “Free range” sounds nice, but chickens that wander are more likely to spread disease and bacteria.
- Keep extra clothes near the chicken coop that are used when handling the chickens or the manure to minimize contamination and keep the bacteria from invading your life.
- Avoid kissing or snuggling with the chickens – close contact, especially with the mouth and face, only make it easier for the bacteria to enter your body.
Raw chicken is a notorious source of many foodborne illnesses and carry many types of bacteria, including:
- Salmonella, campylobacter, staphylococcus aureus – these are the most common causes of foodborne illnesses.
- E. coli and enterococcus – These bacteria indicate fecal contamination.
- Klebsiella pneumoniae – A potent bacteria that can cause illnesses like pneumonia.
Nearly every chicken breast tested had some level of contamination, with no distinction in brand and regardless of whether it was raised organically or without antibiotics.
In 2013, Consumer Reports tested major brands of chicken breasts from 26 states for all six of the bacteria listed above. Nearly every chicken breast tested had some level of contamination, with no distinction in brand and regardless of whether it was raised organically or without antibiotics. Over half of the chicken breast samples had fecal contamination. Even scarier, half of the chicken breast samples tested positive for a multi-drug-resistant strain of bacteria.
It doesn’t take much bacteria to get people sick, either. It is possible to get sick simply by touching contaminated wrapping on the outside of the package. A study conducted in 2010 by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention found that 13% of children under the age of 3 could be exposed to raw meat and poultry, as well as the bacteria they carry, while riding in a grocery cart at the store.
How to minimize cross-contamination and reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses:
- Don’t rinse raw chicken, as the water can spray and droplets can carry the bacteria.
- Don’t let raw chicken juices touch other foods.
- Always use clean utensils, clean the counter, and wash your hands immediately after handling raw chicken.
- If the raw chicken smells off or has a gray color, don’t use it!
Once chicken is cooked, it’s all good right? Think again. Cooked chicken can still go bad, especially if it wasn’t cooked properly the first time. Also, while cooked chicken will keep in the fridge, it is important to make sure it is reheated thoroughly before eating again.
How to make sure your cooked chicken doesn’t make you and your family sick:
- Always cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165ºF.
- Cover chicken and put it in the fridge within an hour of being cooked.
- When reheating chicken, make sure it reaches an internal temperature of 165ºF.
- Only reheat cooked chicken once.
- Sniff off smells or colors, which can be masked by spices or seasonings the chicken was cooked with.
- Never eat chicken that has begun to mold!
When in Doubt, Throw It Out!
Chickens are increasingly common animals to keep around a house and the popularity of the meat continues to grow. Both the live animals and the meat they provide can bring illness and disease if not handled with care.
If you take the right precautions, however, you can enjoy chicken safely! Just remember to always wash your hands after handling chicken – and as always, when in doubt, throw it out!