Julia Child may have known everything there is to know about the perfect beef bourguignon, but it looks like the doyenne of French cuisine had it wrong — "dead wrong," notes NPR — about chicken.
In the celebrated PBS series, "The French Chef," the cheery grande dame advises home cooks to wash their chickens before cooking them. "I just think it's a safer thing to do," Child says as she dunks a bird in the sink and gives it a rinse.
But not so fast, say food safety researchers at Drexel University and New Mexico State University. Their campaign called "Don't Wash Your Chicken!" advises home chefs not to wash their chickens. As it turns out, trying to wash off foodborne pathogens like salmonella and Campylobacter — which together account for almost 1.9 million cases of illness in Americans each year — does little to eradicate them, and does much to shower them around the rest of the kitchen, not to mention the chef.
Something like this:
"There's no reason, from a scientific point of view, to think you're making it any safer," explains Drexel food safety researcher Jennifer Quinlan, "and in fact, you're making it less safe."
Contaminating the kitchen
In a recent study, the U.S. Department of Agriculture partnered with North Carolina State University to investigate how people handle raw meat in the kitchen. They found that 61% rinse their chicken before preparing it. Nearly 30% of those people then had salad that was contaminated with bacteria from the chicken.
"These are horror stories from a microbiological standpoint," Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and professor at N.C. State, told NBC News. "What surprised me most was just how much food preparation happens in and around a sink after someone washes chicken."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees there's no reason to rinse, saying. "Do not wash raw chicken. During washing, chicken juices can spread in the kitchen and contaminate other foods, utensils, and countertops."
The CDC tweeted a reminder of this food safety policy, spurring a debate among home cooks. Many said they still insist on washing the gunk off the chicken but then clean their sink afterward.
The CDC followed the tweet with, "We didn't mean to get you all hot about not washing your chicken! But it's true: kill germs by cooking chicken thoroughly, not washing it. You shouldn't wash any poultry, meat, or eggs before cooking. They can all spread germs around your kitchen. Don't wing food safety!"
Food safety experts advise removing raw poultry from the package and placing it straight in the cooking pan; the heat from cooking will kill any bacteria lurking about. Also make sure to clean up well and wash your hands with soap and hot water.
To see how Julia roasts a chicken, see the video at the top of this story. Just avoid smearing pathogens all over your kitchen with paper towels (avocado green, no less) a la Julia.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in August 2013 and has been updated with new information.