OK – lets get this one out of the way up front….hormones are not added to chicken feed or in any other way administered to chickens, so there is no food safety issue related to hormones and chicken meat; nor is there any issue with unsafe levels of antibiotic residues in chicken meat…decades of testing conducted by the National Residue Survey shows that.
So, what is the issue?
Chicken tartare, cappacio or sashimi, anyone? No? I think pretty much everyone understands that you don’t eat raw chicken…that you need to cook it thoroughly. That’s because raw chicken meat can potentially carry certain species of bacteria which, if consumed, can cause illness. While bacteria (only some of which can potentially cause illness) can be found on any perishable food, particularly meat, the reason you need to be particularly careful with poultry is that, chicken and other poultry is processed (and often packed) with its skin on, and just like most people like the skin, so do bacteria! Fortunately, the bacteria of most concern in this respect in the case of poultry meat, Salmonella and Campylobacter, are easily killed by normal cooking temperatures. However, while cooking will make the chicken itself safe, its important to understand that raw poultry must also be handled carefully to prevent contamination of other cooked foods or foods that will be eaten raw; for example salads.
The majority of calls from the public to the Australian Chicken Meat Federation office are from consumers who understand the fundamentals of safe handling and preparation of chicken, but are worried that they may have (or be about to!) mishandle the product. Many are confused about the interpretation of some of the recommendations for safe handling of poultry meat, and just want to be sure that they aren’t going to do the wrong thing. And in fairness, some recommendations are a bit hard to interpret in practice; some are also based on the assumption that the chicken has received some mishandling in the process from getting it from the processing plant to your refrigerator, and so recommendations are going to be somewhat conservative as a result.
For example, we recommend that raw chicken meat can be stored in the fridge at 5°C or lower for 2–3 days; if it isn’t going to be cooked for more than 2-3 days, then it should be frozen. However, if the day you intend to cook the meat is before the use by date on the packaging of the raw fresh chicken you’ve bought, and you haven’t mishandled the product (for example, let it heat up in the car before getting it home and into the fridge), even if it is more than 2-3 days away, then it should be fine to leave it refrigerated rather than freezing and defrosting again prior to use.
My suggestion: it’s reasonable to use a bit of common sense, but never compromise on the following key recommendations for handling and storing chicken meat:
Cook chicken thoroughly – cooking to normal cooking temperatures easily kills the bacteria of concern in a food safety context that can potentially be associated with chicken. To check, if you have a food thermometer, it should reach at least 75°C when inserted to the deepest (thickest) part of the meat; if you don’t have a food thermometer, the juices should run clear (not pink) when you pierce the meat with a fork or skewer to the thickest part of the meat.
NB While it is generally true that properly cooked chicken meat will no longer be pink inside, the colour of the meat is by no means a perfect indicator of whether the meat is cooked or not. Even fully cooked poultry can sometimes show a pinkish tinge in the meat. There are a number of possible cases of ‘pinking’ of properly cooked chicken, including leaching of pigment from the bone marrow into the surrounding tissue (more common in chicken from young chickens or following slow cooking). The ‘pinking’ of properly cooked chicken meat can also result from exposure of the meat to nitrites. That’s why it can happen when you cook chicken with bacon (as nitrite is sometimes used in the curing of bacon), and can also occur when cooking occurs with some other products, which naturally contain reasonable levels of nitrites. It does not mean that the chicken is unsafe or not thoroughly cooked; if unsure, check the temperature with a food thermometer.
Store raw and cooked chicken below 5°C – some bacteria can multiply on chicken above this temperature; below 5°C they don’t.
Clean and separate – don’t allow raw chicken or its juices to come in contact with other foods which have already been cooked or which will be eaten raw or partially cooked. To prevent this:
- make sure you store chicken well away from foods that will be eaten raw (eg keep chicken (in fact, all meat) well separated from other foods in the refrigerator; keep it well covered or in storage container so it can’t drip into the fridge and potentially on to other foods
- clean all utensils (and hands!) used to prepare chicken thoroughly
- ideally, use separate utensils (for example knives, and particularly chopping boards) for preparing chicken than you use for preparing other foods, particularly ones that will be eaten raw, such as salad vegetables.
The ACMF website provides lots of hints and recommendations for safe handling and cooking of chicken; go to http://www.chicken.org.au/foodsafety/
Have a great Christmas, and enjoy your chicken roast safely. Chook Chat will be back again on Tuesday 3rd February 2015.