Chicken is the number one species of protein consumed by Americans – we eat about 80 pounds of it per year. Outbreaks of foodborne illness have long been associated with poultry and eggs usually by undercooking it or cross-contamination of other foods by raw poultry. Recent concerns about avian or bird flu put the direct focus on our fowl food with concerns about whether this awful disease can transfer from birds to humans.
Poultry History —The chicken is a descendant of the Southeast Asian red jungle fowl first domesticated in India around 2000 B.C. Most of the birds raised for meat in America today are from the Cornish (a British breed) and the White Rock (a breed developed in New England). The name turkey was originally applied to an African bird now known as the guinea fowl, which was believed to have originated in Turkey. When the Europeans came upon the American turkey, they thought it was the same bird as the African guinea fowl, and so gave it the name turkey, although the two species are quite distinct.
Chicken Inspection —All chickens found in retail stores are either inspected by USDA or by state systems, which have standards equivalent to the Federal government. Each chicken and its internal organs are inspected for signs of disease. The “Inspected for wholesomeness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture” seal insures the chicken is free from visible signs of disease.
Chicken Grading & Labeling–Inspection is mandatory but grading is voluntary. Chickens are graded according to USDA Agricultural Marketing Service regulations and standards for meatiness, appearance and freedom from defects. Grade A chickens have plump, meaty bodies and clean skin, free of bruises, broken bones, feathers, cuts and discoloration. The term fresh on a poultry label refers to any raw poultry product that has never been below 26 °F. Raw poultry held at 0 °F or below must be labeled frozen or previously frozen. No specific labeling is required on raw poultry stored at temperatures between 0-25 °F. Product dating is not required by Federal regulations, but many stores and processors voluntarily date packages of chicken or chicken products. If a calendar date is shown, immediately adjacent to the date there must be a phrase explaining the meaning of that date such as sell by or use before. The use-by date is for quality assurance; after the date, peak quality begins to lessen but the product may still be used. If a use-by date expires while the chicken is frozen, it can still be used.
Foodborne Organisms Associated with Chicken–As on any perishable meat, fish or poultry, bacteria can be found on raw or undercooked chicken and those most often associated with poultry are Salmonella, Staph aureas, Campylobacter, and Listeria. They multiply rapidly at temperatures between 41 °F and 135 °F (out of refrigeration and before thorough cooking occurs). Freezing doesn’t kill bacteria but they are destroyed by thorough cooking of any food to 165 °F (use a stem type food thermometer). USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a zero tolerance for bacteria in cooked and ready-to-eat products such as chicken franks or lunch meat that can be eaten without further cooking. Most foodborne illness outbreaks are a result of contamination from food handlers. Proper cooking and refrigeration should prevent foodborne illnesses from raw poultry, but it must be handled carefully to prevent cross-contamination. This can occur if raw poultry or its juices contact cooked food or foods that will be eaten raw such as salad. An example of this is chopping tomatoes on an unwashed cutting board just after cutting raw chicken on it.
More Poultry Points:
Rinsing or Soaking Chicken —It is not necessary to wash raw chicken or turkey. Any bacteria which might be present are destroyed by cooking. Raw poultry can be handled with bare hands, but always wash hands immediately after handling it and before touching ready-to-eat foods.
Liquid in Package —Many people think the pink liquid in packaged fresh chicken or turkey is blood, but it is mostly water which was absorbed by the bird during the chilling process. Blood is removed from poultry during slaughter and only a small amount remains in the muscle tissue.
Marinating–Poultry may be marinated in the refrigerator up to 2 days. Boil used marinade before brushing on cooked chicken. Discard any uncooked leftover marinade.
Color of Skin–Chicken skin color varies from cream-colored to yellow. Skin color is a result of the type of feed eaten by the chicken, not a measure of nutritional value, flavor, tenderness or fat content. Color preferences vary in different sections of the country, so growers use the type of feed which produces the desired color.
Dark Bones–Darkening around bones occurs primarily in young broiler-fryers. Since their bones have not calcified completely, pigment from the bone marrow can seep through the porous bones. Freezing can also contribute to this seepage. When the chicken is cooked, the pigment turns dark. It’s perfectly safe to eat chicken meat that turns dark during cooking.
Trisodium Phosphate–Food-grade trisodium phosphate (TSP) has been approved by USDA for use in poultry slaughter as an antimicrobial agent. When immersed in and/or sprayed in a dilute solution on chickens or turkey, it can significantly reduce bacteria levels. TSP is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the FDA, and has been safely used for years, particularly in processed cheese.
Irradiation of Poultry--In 1992, the USDA approved a rule to permit irradiation of raw, fresh or frozen packaged poultry to control certain common bacteria on raw poultry that can cause illness when poultry is undercooked or otherwise mishandled. Irradiation at 1.5 to 3.0 kilo Gray, the smallest, most practical “dose,” would eliminate more than 99 percent of Salmonellae organisms on the treated poultry.
Bottom Line: To keep poultry safe, follow the tried and true food safety rules of good personal hygiene practices by food handlers, cross-contamination prevention and time/temperature controls.
About the Author: Lacie Thrall
Lacie Thrall passed away in early 2017 after a long illness. She dedicated her 35-year career to improving the health and well-being of others by promoting food safety best practices. Lacie worked in environmental health for 17 years before joining FoodHandler in 1997 as the Director of Safety Management. While at FoodHandler, she trained employees and customers on safe food handling practices, including proper hand hygiene and glove use. Later as a FoodHandler consultant, Lacie provided the foodservice industry with food safety information and advice through her blog on FoodHandler.com.