We all know that raw chicken can contain pathogenic bacteria such as Campylobacter and Salmonella. But experts were more concerned with the bacteria on the inside of the basic plastic supermarket wrapping. Now experts in the UK are warning shoppers to wash their hands after handling these packages, since the bacteria could also be on the outside.
An investigation by the Daily Telegraph found that the plastic exterior of more than 1 in every 100 raw chickens sold in Britain may have a potentially infectious level of Campylobacter bacteria. That means that 9,000,000 packages of chicken are sold with a “dangerous dose of deadly bacteria on the outside.” When a shopper picks up a package of chicken, then snacks on food while shopping, they could get sick.
Campylobacter is the leading cause of food poisoning in the UK. At least 485,000 cases are estimated every year, and about 100 people die. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) had thought that the risk of people getting sick because of bacteria on the exterior of chicken packages “extremely unlikely.”
Dr. Lisa Ackerley, an independent food hygiene expert, told the Telegraph that, “I strongly suspect that many food poisoning cases are from cross contamination, which may involve the spread of bacteria from contaminated hands to mouth as well as via contaminated food.”
[Editor’s note: Whenever I pick up a package of raw meat or chicken in the supermarket, I use one of the plastic bags the store provides and use that as a bag over my hand. I pick up the package and then pull the bag on my hand over the package to make sure I don’t touch it.]
The Telegraph article states that supermarkets did not offer small plastic bags to shoppers so they could separate the raw chicken from other food in the shopping cart. The FSA had requested that action.
The FSA released a survey in 2016 of Campylobacter on fresh chickens. That survey found that 73% of chickens sold in the UK tested positive for Campylobacter, and 7% of packaging tested positive for the presence of Campylobacter. That survey also listed the major retailers in the UK, along with the sample numbers for each.
Cross-contamination from rinsing the chicken before cooking, from not properly cleaning work surfaces and utensils after they touch raw chicken, from not properly washing hands after touching the raw meat, and from improperly storing raw chicken near fresh foods, can make people sick. Chicken must be cooked to 160°F, and tested with a meat thermometer, to make sure all bacteria present on the product are destroyed before serving.