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Food poisoning risk from chicken

Washing chicken spreads campylobacter bug

Three quarters of people who buy whole chickens wash them, as revealed by Which? research, increasing the risk of food poisoning.


If a chicken is contaminated with bacteria, washing it can spread bacteria on to work surfaces for up to a one-metre radius. A recent study by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) found that 65% of raw shop-bought chicken is actually contaminated with the campylobacter bug, which accounts for a third of all food-borne illnesses and commonly causes severe diarrhoea.

Campylobacter causes an estimated 30,000 cases of food poisoning a year, including 15,000 hospitalisations and 80 deaths – more than E coli. But very few people are aware of it. When we asked over 1,000 members of the public what they thought the largest cause of food poisoning was, 56% said salmonella and only 2% identified campylobacter.

Stopping the source

More can be done across the whole production chain to reduce the level of infection – including improved hygiene in slaughterhouses, fitting fly screens to where birds are reared and workers changing their clothes and shoes. More controversially, chickens can also be cleaned in antimicrobial wash, though Which? believes this method needs to be carefully examined.

The FSA and partners have recently announced a new research strategy to tackle campylobacter, which you can read more about here.The new strategy includes:

  • research to understand current infection incidences, current food and farming practices and potential intervention strategies
  • studies of the biology of campylobacter and the animal hosts
  • the development of new tools and diagnostic techniques (for example, the feasibility of developing a rapid on-farm test for campylobacter).

What you can do 

To reduce any risk, campylobacter can be easily killed by thoroughly cooking chicken – you don’t need to wash it. But Which?’s chief policy adviser Sue Davies says: ‘It shouldn’t be up to consumers to clean up problems made earlier in the food chain.’ 

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