The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wants to rehaul the way it thinks about and regulates food safety. Any revised program needs to put a strong focus upon safe food handling.

In October 2021, the USDA announced its intent to overhaul the national food safety policies overseen by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Along with a new, Healthy People 2030 goal of a 25% reduction in Salmonella illnesses by the end of the decade, the agency wants to change its focus to detecting and neutralizing the most virulent foodborne pathogens.

This is a noble and necessary goal. Each year, Salmonella and the other food safety boogeyman Campylobacter cause millions of foodborne illnesses some of which bring long-term repercussions.

Safe food handling

Every year the chicken industry makes great strides in improving the safety of the product consumers bring home, but as Dr. Ashley Peterson, the National Chicken Council’s senior vice president of science and regulatory affairs, said shortly after the news was announced, chicken will never be sterile.

The onus, ultimately, falls upon the consumer to handle food properly, not cross-contaminate food in their kitchen and to cook food to a safe temperature.

During a recent public appearance, the FSIS’ director, Sandra Eskin, the USDA’s deputy under secretary for food safety, described one of many behavioral studies the agency is conducting to gauge the real food safety knowledge of average people. These studies, she said, will help the FSIS build its consumer education program going forward.

This study put a subject in a test kitchen and made them prepare a meal of chicken and a salad. More than 25% cross contaminated their salad. A large portion of this contamination occurred when consumers rinsed the poultry before cooking it.

Why rinse chicken?

Astonishingly, to me at least, 90% of consumers rinse their poultry before cooking it because historically – when Amelia Simmons called for a chicken to be slaughtered and plucked – rinsing the meat before cooking it was part of the prep work. People erroneously believe rinsing or washing chicken before cooking it will remove any pathogens or foreign substances on the meat.

Rinsing the bird is now an ingrained behavior in many households. From a food safety perspective, spraying poultry water all over the kitchen is a nightmare. The same FSIS study found much of the bacteria from the bird lingers even after cleaning.

Time for action

The FSIS will fight an uphill battle in teaching Americans to stop washing their chicken as part of their food prep. However, I feel the industry can play a proactive role in reminding consumers that washing raw chicken is not necessary.

If so much is done to limit pathogens on the product, then perhaps an effort should be made to teach consumers how to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy when enjoying a chicken dinner.