Driving home from school the other day, my 5 year old daughter asked me what I’d been up to that day. “I went into London,” was my response. That caught her attention. “Cool, did you go to the Aquarium?” “Uh, no, nothing that exciting,” I told her. “Oh, so did you just go and take some photos then?” “Well no it wasn’t even that exciting,” I said. “I went to listen to some people talk about chicken.” “What! Why would you do that?” I could have just ended the conversation at that point but I thought I would tell her anyway. “Well, they were explaining how to cook chicken properly so that people don’t get sick or worse, even die.” “Well that was a waste of time then because you’ve never killed anyone – have you?” And no I haven’t ever killed anyone or even given them food poisoning but I did find the talk very interesting and I did learn more about the correct way to handle chicken when preparing to cook it.
There is going to be a lot of information in the media this week about this very subject. It is after all, Food Safety Week and the emphasis is on making the public aware of Campylobacter which happens to be the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK. I’d never heard of it before but there are more cases of Campylobacter poisoning that Salmonella and E.coli put together. The symptoms of Campylobacter poisoning are abdominal pain, severe diarrhoea and sometimes vomiting but what can be really nasty is the possibility of reactive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, reactive arthritis and Guillain-Barré syndrome. Of course not everybody will suffer to the same degree but I personally don’t want to ever be responsible for putting someone in that position.
Now I’m not one to be overly fussy about germs. Our house is clean but not sterile. We are generally a healthy family and I can say this because we have lived in our current house for 6 years and neither my husband nor my two children have ever had to visit our local doctor. I have always been aware of the risks of raw chicken and I think I do take more care when handling chicken than with any other raw meat. I have never been one to wash chicken before cooking it but I do know of people who do. We have had many debates about why you should and shouldn’t with each one of us as passionate about our reasons as the other. It would seem that at least 44% of people surveyed said they do wash chicken and their reasons vary from removing any bacteria to removing the slimy stuff or just because their Mother used to do it. The FSA and local authorities are now campaigning to raise awareness about the dangers of washing your chicken. One of the main ways to get and spread campylobacter is through cross-contamination and by washing your raw chicken you can actually spread the bacteria by splashing it onto hands, work surfaces, clothing and cooking equipment. As the talk progressed I was feeling very pleased with myself and gave myself a pat on the back for not ever having washed my chicken. After listening to both the FSA and a doctor from the Institute of Infection and Global Health we had a demonstration from Sue Ashworth who is a trained home economist. After Sue had cut open the packaging and removed the chicken she threw the packaging straight into the bin and made the comment that “of course you don’t want to rinse the packaging.” That was me brought down from my pedestal – I always rinse my packaging before binning it. I found myself sitting up straighter and paying more attention after that.
So what can we, as home cooks do to reduce the risk of cross-contamination?
1. When buying chicken, make sure the packaging is not damaged and the meat is sealed adequately.
2. Make sure your chicken is not put in with any fresh produce when packing your bags at the supermarket – just in case it does leak.
3. Keep the chicken as cold as possible on the way home from the supermarket.
4. Place it in the fridge as soon as you get home and preferably in the coldest part of the fridge which is the bottom shelf.
5. Try to leave the chicken in the original packaging and always place it in a separate container – again just in case it does leak.
6. If the chicken is frozen, give yourself ample time to defrost it in the fridge – not on your countertop.
7. Before preparing your chicken, fill your sink with hot soapy water. By doing this it means you don’t have to touch your taps to wash your hands.
8. Cut your packaging and remove your chicken either into your baking dish or on to your chopping board.
9. Throw any packaging straight in the bin.
10. Wash any utensils and your hands in the hot soapy water as you go.
11. If you test your chicken with a skewer and the chicken is not yet cooked, make sure you wash the skewer before using it again. This applies to a basting brush as well.
12. Follow the instructions for cooking times given on the packaging. There should be no pink meat visible and all juices should run clear when tested with a skewer or knife.
Remember – thorough cooking will kill any bacteria.
So there you have it. Most of us will instinctively follow good food hygiene but there may be just one or two things that we can improve on to help our families enjoy the food that we give them and above all to stay healthy.
Here is a quick recipe for barbecued chicken drumsticks – a perfect summer snack and an opener for another whole debate about barbecues and food safety :-)
- 8 chicken drumsticks
- 4 tblsp red wine vinegar
- 2 tblsp tomato puree
- 2 tblsp soy sauce
- 3 tblsp honey
- 1 tblsp Worcestershire sauce
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper
- Slash the chicken skin 2 - 3 times with a sharp knife.
- Place the chicken in a shallow glass container,
- Mix the vinegar, tomato puree, soy sauce, honey, Worcestershire Sauce, garlic and cayenne pepper together and pour over the chicken.
- Cover with cling wrap and leave to marinate in the refrigerator for about 1 hour.
- Cook the drumsticks on a preheated barbecue grill for about 20 - 30 minutes or until all the juices run clear.
For more information on the FSA’s campylobacter campaign, and for guidance on the safest way to handle chicken, visit food.gov.uk/chicken
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