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Food poisoning – how risky is supermarket chicken?

Around 23kg of poultry per person – that’s how much Brits eat on average each year. So it’s safe to say we love chicken – whether it’s roasted, grilled, fried or barbecued. But how safe actually is it to eat?

So, how safe is your supermarket chicken? We took the question to our labs and found that 18% of the chickens we tested were contaminated with campylobacter, 17% were contaminated with listeria and 1.5% tested positive for salmonella.

Although all these types of bacteria can cause food poisoning, cooking at temperatures above 70ºC (165ºF) kills them. However, most food poisoning cases are caused by cross-contamination – that is, the bacteria from raw chicken being transferred to other foods that you don’t cook, meaning the bacteria aren’t killed.

Keep bacteria at bay in the kitchen

There are simple ways you can minimise cross-contamination at home. Don’t wash raw chicken – the water can spray bacteria onto the surrounding area of your kitchen. In the fridge, keep raw chicken in sealed packaging on the bottom shelf. And when preparing chicken, use different knives and chopping boards and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.

But should the onus be on us, the consumers? Or should the chicken industry do more to make the chicken we buy as uncontaminated as possible?

In the US, chicken processing plants sometimes spray their birds with chlorinated water right at the end of the production line. This can reduce bacterial contamination, but it’s currently not permitted in the EU.

Should producers freeze, acid wash or irradiate our birds?

When we spoke to the British Poultry Council, it told us that there were many other carcass treatments that could be introduced to reduce bacterial contamination. These include steam treatment, a lactic acid wash, skin-only freezing, whole carcass freezing and irradiation.

However, the industry doesn’t want to introduce treatments that could put consumers off buying their chicken. In February 2011 we surveyed 1,406 Brits online – the majority (82%) told us they wanted controls put in place throughout the food chain so that chickens aren’t infected – rather than trying to deal with the contamination right at the end.

Respondents were most averse to chlorine washes, other washes with mild acid (such as lactic acid) and irradiation treatment.

Would you buy chicken that had been treated with one of these washes? Or are you happier taking responsibility to practice good food safety at home?

erdcan says:
13 April 2012

The article fails to make clear whether only fresh or both fresh and cooked chickens were tested. The only relevant reference in the main report is to “fresh” chickens in the FSA testing in 2009.
If cooked chickens were not tested, then why not? While cooked chickens are unlikely to be contaminated at the point of sale there is a risk if the cooking has not been thorough and there is of course a small post-sale risk, eg from reheating cooled cooked chicken.

The article is referring to fresh chicken. Contamination of whole chickens and chicken meat with Campylobacter, Listeria and Salmonella is not a new problem.

Proper cooking will kill these bacteria, as stated in the introduction. If meat has been properly cooked, covered, cooled and stored in a fridge at the correct temperature for a day or two it will be safe to eat, either cold or hot. Whether cooking or re-heating food it is important to ensure that it is uniformly hot. Microwave ovens used on full power can be ineffective. They should be used on lower power to allow the heat to penetrate and food should be stirred if possible.

The problem stems from poor animal husbandry and slaughterhouse management. Chemical treatment or irradiation is undoubtedly effective in dealing with contaminated meat but that prevention is better than treatment.

I do not like the recommendation not to wash meat. Most of the bacteria will be present in the juices and on the surface of the meat, especially where chicken has diced or otherwise cut up. Washing will remove a lot of bacteria and their toxins. Transferring chicken to a pan, rinsing it thoroughly and then cooking it need not contaminate the kitchen.

Fridges should be designed with a covered watertight drawer marked ‘fresh meat’ at the bottom. This needs to be removable for easy cleaning. The old idea of having a salad chiller at the bottom of a fridge was rather irresponsible, because of the danger of contamination from raw meat juices, etc.

I think the question I’d like the answer to, is how serious is this issue, is it something new or have I been living with the risk all my life? If this is nothing new, then I’m not about to change my ways, as the way I prepare and wash chicken etc has not done me any harm to date 🙂

Here is some brief information about food poisoning, published by the FSA:

Food poisoning is rarely fatal but bad cases can be very unpleasant indeed. Cases are probably under-recorded. If people do not seek medical help, cases will not be reported and minor cases may just result in people feeling unwell, which could be due to food poisoning or many other reasons.

Keeping raw meat well away from cooked foods and food eaten raw should be well known by everyone. Consider that it might be crawling with bacteria and do your best to avoid cross contamination.

par ailleurs says:
13 April 2012

Usual daft scare stories. It’s come from a dead, cut-up animal so of course it contains bacteria etc. Prepare it, wash your hands and the work surface with ordinary soap and hot water and then cook it properly. Next, enjoy it and stop fretting. There’s money to be made frightening folk about terrible germs. Apart from the usual caveats about the young, infirm and elderly get on with life and stop worrying. I’d be far more worried about eating in a house that is continually blitzed with anti-bacterial cleaners!

Our research did just focus on fresh chickens and chicken portions. As Wavechange reinforces, cooking the chicken properly should kill any bacteria, but the advice is clear not to wash chicken. There is no need to and the risk is that you spread bacteria around the kitchen. If there is any debris on the meat that you want to remove, just wipe it with a kitchen towel. Just to be clear that we are not aiming to create a scare story. Far too many people become sick from campylobacter food poisoning every year and with chicken the main source, we think it is important to monitor what progress is being made reducing levels of contamination and reiterate advice on safe cooking and preparation. Not everyone is aware of the advice. A survey we carried out last year for example found that a lot of people did not know that you shouldn’t wash chicken.

Thanks Sue, but what about the risk of heat-stable toxins produced by whatever bacteria are present? These will be mainly on the surface of uncooked chicken and in juices. A kitchen towel will not achieve much apart from to remove some of the juices.

Another factor that makes this more than a scare story is the fact that an increasing number of people take proton pump inhibitors (Lansoprazole etc) and other drugs that decrease the secretion of acid into the stomach. Stomach acid is one of the body’s defences against harmful bacteria in food and drink.

I agree with par alleurs that antibacterial products are unnecessary and best avoided, but food poisoning cannot be classified as a health scare.

I will carry on washing my chicken and I have never knowingly had food poisoning in my own home, despite being on regular medication to decrease stomach acid.

Aisling says:
13 April 2012

Hi can you tell us which supermarkets were the worst offenders?

Becky B. says:
22 April 2012

I must admit I understand why the advice is not to wash chicken but I wash it by pouring a cup of cider vinegar mixed with lemon juice & part water, in the kitchen sink -mainly to slough off any grease but I then spray the sink & surrounding worktop with “dettox” – is their any truth that vinegar does have natural anti bacterial properties?

CaptKirk says:
13 April 2012

The assumption here appears to be that everyone chooses to buy and eat decomposing bits of dead animals. As a vegetarian I choose not to. However I don’t assume to be “holier than thou” and point fellow veges (and vendors to them) to the excellent guidance on vege food poisoning risks on the Kensington and Chelsea council’s web site: http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/businessandenterprise/regulation/healthandsafety/foodsafetyatoz/vegetarianguidetofoodhygie.aspx

bobkat55 says:
13 April 2012

i was a butcher, as long as you keep chickens in a fridge, and take them straight home after purchase and put them in a fridge there is no problem.. its when you leave them out and they start getting warm there is your problem. in the supermarket check dates , try to buy your meat and cold stuff last thing so your not walking around with it.

par ailleurs says:
13 April 2012

Of course, I’m a completely unreconstructed sceptic when it comes to food safety. I don’t apologise for my attitude and equally never expect anyone else to do things my way unless they eat at my house.
On a serious but almost impossible query though, how can we differentiate in these studies between those who eat a wholly artificial,sanitised diet and could never expect to encounter many micro-organisms and idiots like me who are sensible when it comes to things like raw or undercooked poultry but otherwise eat anything and everything fresh, stale or iffy looking? I also love unpasteurised dairy produce. I simply don’t contract gastro-intestinal illnesses, severe or transitory. There has to be some correlation surely? I’m not Superman!

BenJie says:
13 April 2012

Totally agree with Par ailleurs and Rich835. You wonder how we survived as a species before refrigeration, pasteurisation and high pressure whatever.

How did we survive before refrigeration and modern hygiene? Well, often we didn’t – people died younger and from causes such as food poisoning a lot more in the past than they do now. Even so, thousands of people suffer from food poisoning every year and some – generally the very young, old or ill – even die from it. It is indeed a relatively simple matter to safely store and prepare raw meat and vegetables but claims that it is simply common sense clearly make little sense given the number of cases of food poisoning year after year

(And by the way, food poisoning is not something against which you can develop immunity)

par ailleurs says:
13 April 2012

Well OK, there are thousands of cases of food poisoning per annum most relatively trivial, some serious. Firstly, take my point about exactly which type of citizen might largely be affected and then take the number of cases per annum against the billions of meals prepared and eaten out or at home and put things into at least some perspective.
Washing meat? For goodness sake (in both senses) don’t do it. Take basic and sensible precautions. No more, no less.
Lastly, to answer the point about people dying young in the past, they certainly did but we are not comparing anything faintly resembling like with like. We can’t turn this into a history lecture but read up a bit about living and working conditions in any period up to the mid 20th C. Thankfully a lot more has changed in the world than just food hygeine.
If you want to see what is supposed to be the serious side of this then find the video instruction on how to wash your hands properly and be at risk of premature death from losing the abilty to breathe from laughing.

Derek says:
14 April 2012

I hope that people have got the message that raw food may be contaminated with food poisoning organisms and needs to be treated in some way to reduce the risk to acceptable levels. Washing and peeling of fruit and veg immediately before consumption, together with removal of defective bits is usually enough, but heating is more positive and pasteurization was developed for that purpose. Cooking must achieve a temp. of at least 70C in every part of the food which means that using microwave cookers for solid food such as chicken is quite risky. However I still believe that cross contamination from raw chicken is the major risk, rather than undercooking. Many people do not have room in their fridges, donot own 2 chopping boards and a special chicken knife, but even if they did they would still find lots of ways to cross contaminate themselves and many other things.
The ideal solution is to eliminate the problem at source and we are moving that way, but in the meantime I would welcome the use of food processor treatments to reduce the problem to acceptable levels, including those suggested; irradiation, food acid washes, chlorine. I am amazed that consumers prefer the risk of food poisoning for themselves and their families.
What exactly were the questions asked and was there any pre-questionaire statement?

To wash or not to wash? Well, if you must then clean the sink and surrounding area thoroughly afterwards…
On a more general note – the most important hygiene improvement that has extended life expectancy in the modern world is clean water. Obsessive food hygiene is much less important – except perhaps for those who are vulnerable because of an underlying health problem. Finally, good animal husbandry, particularly not raising animals in overcrowded conditions, seems to make a significant contribution to reducing these (small) risks.
Now just stop worrying and enjoy your dinner!

I am disappointed by the complacent response by the British Poultry Council to the Which? report. There is still a lot to be done to improve animal husbandry and slaughterhouse procedures to cut down the number of chickens contaminated with Campylobacter and other bacteria associated with food poisoning.

If the extent of contamination is sufficient for the Food Standards Agency and NHS to recommend that we should not wash raw meat (presumably the basis of the same recommendation from Which?) for fear of cross contamination, then it is time that our food producers get on and tackle the problem. It would be unhelpful to have a repeat of the the Salmonella in eggs warning by Edwina Currie, but that could happen.

Come on British Poultry Council and sort out the problem.

Can only say that I have been eating chicken daily since before WW2 without a problem – except once after eating a meal in a restaurant about three years ago. I rarely eat any other meat due to cost. I have eaten it during camping over an open fire – BBQ – microwaved – oven roasted or not – stored in a fridge or not.. Somehow I feel this is a storm in a teacup.

par ailleurs says:
14 April 2012

Derek, you’re doubtless a lovely chap but you’ve been brainwashed. Relax and enjoy and stop worrying. When I see these instructions about washing this, sterilizing that and different knives for different foods etc etc I just think (a) like richard I’m still fine and never get sick and (b) where’s the love in your kitchen? Human beings are tough old things if you give them a chance to thrive.
An interesting convo but I’ll go now as the two factions are poles apart and will never meet.

Bringing raw meat into the domestic kitchen is a risk where commercial hygiene practices to manage cross-contamination are not easily followed – e.g. separate fridge, sink and preparation areas for uncooked, cooked and hot foods, The Conversation is helpful in reminding us of the commonality and severity of these risks.

But given a percentage of contamination is inevitable, and it needs to be eliminated during cooking, I don’t understand why the use of meat thermometers to check the internal temperature of food isn’t commonplace in UK domestic kitchens, as it is in North America.

Apart from ensuring food safety, I find that the time and temperature method specified on much of the supermarket packaging is unreliable and generally results in unnecessarily dry, overcooked meat. Even with a fan oven temperature of 180°C – which I check regularly with a calibated meter – most chicken products emerge after the recommended cooking time at around 80-85°C internal, whereas 70-75°C is sufficent to kill bacteria and provide a good eating texture. And it is almost essential to use this method with barbequed meats, due to the highly-variable cooking temperatures, unless you are happy with semi-raw or charcoal-blackened sausages and chicken pieces.

So why do I have difficulty in sourcing a cheap, practical, reliable and long-lasting meat thermometer, or finding recommended meat temperatures in this country? Maybe Which? could introduce a consumer test, highlighting the benefits of this method of cooking and suggest some best-buys. The best one I’ve found so far is a Weber digital pocket thermometer for around £15 and I get recommended meat temperatures from the USDA.

Phil says:
14 April 2012

Will Which? now examine red meat which is often eaten undercooked as the Style Fascists dictate but can still be contaminated.

There was an attempt to introduce irradiated food in the mid-90s but Which? led an ultimately successful campaign to prevent it’s introduction. Can we assume you’ve seen sense now?

Phil says:
14 April 2012

Sorry, 1989. Found a reference in Hansard which shows how effective the campaign was.


Food irradiation would certainly ensure that live bacteria are removed from fresh meat, at least until it leaves the factory. There are plenty of well documented problems with food irradiation, including the risk of falling standards in animal husbandry and slaughterhouse/factory processing. There is a significant risk of meat currently regarded as unfit for human consumption being treated and sold as food. Irradiation will kill live bacteria but not remove the toxic substances that they produce.

As far as I know there is only one food irradiation plant in the UK and spices are the only foods permitted to be irradiated. I suggest that we keep it this way and improve standards in farming and food production.

In certain Eastern cultures, fresh oysters whether from polluted or pristine
waters are NEVER eaten raw unlike in the West, always well-cooked
and/or turned into delicious oyster sauce used as a cooking ingredient in meat
and other dishes. Believe hepatitis A can be contracted from eating
undercooked/raw contaminated shellfish quite apart from anything else
I dread to think. You can never know for sure where micro-organisms may be
lurking… in matters of food safety, one can’t be too careful and so far as
I’m concerned, there’s a presumption against.

Undercooked pork is particularly dangerous, eat little beef/lamb and it’s always
well-cooked with no residual traces of blood appearing.

And to think Rick Stein advocating on TV lightly frying chicken livers
with traces of blood still oozing and served that way. Shocking and
quite unacceptable!

I should qualify my comment about toxic substances produced by bacteria. Some bacteria produce these toxins and others do not. For example some strains of Escherichia coli (better known as E. coli) produce toxins and others do not. A major problem is that some bacterial toxins are heat-stable and remain after cooking. Some bacterial toxins are very harmful to humans, and this is the reason I am so keen on not just relying on cooking to ensure that meat is not heavily contaminated with bacteria when we buy it.

There is less of a problem with red meat; most of the bacteria are on the surface and a medium-rare steak will have reached a sufficiently high temperature to be safe to eat. On the other hand, I would be less happy with minced beef as any surface contamination will now be buried inside a burger or other reformed product.

If you are really unhappy with undercooked red meat – which should be a personal preference – why do you eat at these establishments? I don’t like over-spicy foods – does that make Indian restaurants that serve hot curries Fascist?

And whilst I agree there is a lot of nonsense talked about the safety of irradiated food, one of the problems with the process is that it can be used to sanitize food has been produced under unhygenic conditions in the first place. So whilst the present level of bacterial contamination may be low after treatment, the toxins left behind by their once-living relatives can remain high.

People need to remember it is not the bacteria that make you ill – it is the level of toxins they produce both before and after consumption of the food.

Phil says:
14 April 2012

“If you are really unhappy with undercooked red meat – which should be a personal preference – why do you eat at these establishments? I don’t like over-spicy foods – does that make Indian restaurants that serve hot curries Fascist?”

That’s my point, increasingly it isn’t a personal preference. Indian restaurants generally offer a range of curries varying in hotness, order a red meat dish and more often than not it’s brought to the table oozing blood whether you like it that way or not. Waiters used to ask how well cooked a customer liked their meat but that doesn’t seem to happen any longer. Watch any of the myriad cookery programmes on TV and there are the “celebrity” chefs telling you that red meat should be served “a bit pink”; or worse. Personally I hate it, I not only consider it unhealthy but it looks disgusting. I don’t have red meat in restaurants anymore, it has to be chicken or fish.

Thanks Em. Your point about minced meat and burgers is important with regard to cooking. Definitely don’t ask for a beefburger or chicken equivalent cooked ‘rare’.

Campylobacter toxins are examples of those that can be destroyed by heat.

Phil – One of my friends asks for his steak to be ‘cremated’, possibly because he is in the medical profession and knows more than the rest of us.

As Em says, there is less problem with red meat but I could not bring myself to eat meat that is oozing blood, like some people do. Even more disgusting is the thought of ingesting live tapeworms from undercooked pork.

Hi Phil, I’m afraid I personally like my steaks blue. That is, send the cow through a warm kitchen and then put it on my plate (minute either side in the pan). That’s how I personally like to eat my red meat (it does have to be very good quality) – though I believe medium rare may be the best of both worlds. The fewer chemicals this steak has seen, the better in my view.

We have know about the ill effects of raw / undercooked food & cross contamination for millennia, Even the old testament [Bible] has guidelines about this aspect of food hygiene.

So after hundreds of years of attempting to educate the public, we still undercook or eat raw food, we still store cooked and uncooked meats together, and then blame everyone but our selves when we fall ill.

All Chicken meat carries bacteria, always has done and always will, so I always fill the sink with water, pour vinegar and salt in and give it a thorough wash underwater [to avoid spraying bacteria around the kitchen]. I pat it dry with paper towels, then prepare and cook it thoroughly.

When eating oysters, sushi etc… I always have a cup of tea made with ground Kola nut, this is the traditional drink used for hundreds of years to offset food poisoning.

Irradiated food does concern me as I do not know if the irradiation is causing any detriment to the nutritional value of the food, and does it counteract any cross contamination occurring post irradiation.
Basic hygiene saves lives, so practise it at home and do not depend on those whose sole motivation for selling food is profit, to do it for you.

Vinegar and salt is unlikely to remove much more bacteria than water washing, and Listeria can tolerate 10% salt. I’m sure you and I can carry on washing our meat without contaminating everything in sight.

Apologies for not being clear.
Washing is not to kill bacteria, its to wash off all the other cak that may have attached itself to the chicken as it goes through the process of slaughter & preparation.
I rely on cooking to kill the little nasties.
As for my endeavours in the kitchen, if you saw me in action you would understand why I wash meat underwater, I am still reminded about the curry on the ceiling.

Rick Stein again, in an episode filmed in Java, was seen ingesting
uncooked RAW ground pork, spiced, with local folks and drinking
thereafter some local brew/concoction that wd purportedly counter
whatever undesirable consequential health effects OR by way of
an antidote as to anything harmful developing.

Tapeworms reside/grow inside of you for quite a while and when they’re
eventually discharged at other end cd well be several centimetres
long, well-fed and bloated, live and kicking.

Absolutely not for me undercooked poultry, game, red meats, fish,
shellfish, squid, octupus and any other sea mollusc under any

Do not eat sushi, not at all keen on uncooked cured meats (of pork,
what else?) either even though pathogens have been completely removed
in the curing process, as claimed.

M wrote … I am still reminded about the curry on the ceiling.

Was that curry pancakes? Just thought I’d toss that in. 🙂

Insides of duck and chicken, high pressure water treatment
plus separate salt and vinegar application or in combination,
have seen.

Thanks for the smile.
I needed that on a dull dismal Monday morning

Food poisoning is bad enough, but it’s best to keep anyone wielding automatic rifle in a good mood. 🙂

Looks like a (semi-)automatic (deadly) AK 47 OR a hi-velocity rapid fire assault
rifle/sub-machine gun, but it cd well be neither unless have a close-up inspection!