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Why Are People Still Washing Raw Chicken?

Washing raw poultry actually spreads harmful bacteria, like Salmonella, on surfaces around the kitchen.
Image via Pixabay

We all have bad habits. And while some can be trivial, like biting your nails, others can pose a serious risk to your health. So, why do people continue their bad habits, knowing there is a health risk? That’s what researchers Abigail Gilman, PhD, a research grant and compliance manager at Bryn Mawr College; Jennifer Quinlan, PhD, a professor in Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions; and Shauna Henley, PhD, a senior agent at University of Maryland, aimed to find out when it comes to washing raw poultry — despite knowing it’s a health risk — and how they might get people to change their risky behavior. 

Previous research from Quinlan and Henley, while she was a graduate student at Drexel, found that washing chicken was a widespread habit – 90% of survey respondents said they do it – and there are few educational materials to inform people that it’s unsafe. So, they worked with New Mexico State University’s Department of Media Productions to develop the “Don’t Wash Your Chicken” campaign.

While this got some news coverage and a lot of people talking, it also got some negative responses. “Even after that campaign, surveys find that nearly two-thirds of consumers in the United States and Canada continue to wash their chicken,” said Gilman.

Salmonella found on poultry products contributes to 93 million cases of food borne illness. Gilman said that cross contamination – when you get the bacteria on something else that’s not to be cooked – is one of the greatest potential ways of getting foodborne illness. As the “Don’t Wash Your Chicken” campaign explains, washing raw poultry actually spreads harmful bacteria, like Salmonella, on surfaces around the kitchen.

Recently published in the British Food Journal, Gilman, Quinlan and Henley found that while some participants were steadfast in their chicken-washing behavior, almost 60% were open to learning more about the health risks and possibly changing their behavior.  

“Prior to our study, few researchers had really conducted any kind of in depth interview processes to tease out some of the whys behind their resistance to change, to get a deeper understanding of the participants’ behaviors and what aspects of the message would better suit their behavior change,” said Gilman, who was a postdoctoral fellow working with Quinlan when they conducted the study.

The research was also novel in its approach of using the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change (also called the Stages of Change Model) to understand where participants were in their behaviors and how the researchers could move them along in the behavior change – to ultimately stop washing raw poultry. 

“We identified that there was definitely resistance to changing their behavior,” said Gilman. “It included the feeling that consumers needed to remove something from the surface of the raw poultry. And just a general lack of confidence in the poultry processing system, as well as a very strong confidence in their own ability to prevent the cross contamination.”

They found that a lot of participants were not educated in the food process of getting a chicken from farm to grocery store, as well as mis- or distrust of the process. “What people really don’t understand – and I didn’t understand before getting involved in this research – is that when chicken gets processed in a big processing plant it actually gets washed several times before even leaving the processing plant. The processing is trying to eliminate as much bacteria as possible before it even gets to the market shelf,” said Gilman.

After speaking with the study participants, about 35% said they were willing to make changes to their behaviors after learning about the chicken processing, that is standard by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Another reason participants gave for sticking with their habits was because of the tradition of where they learned how to cook. Many participants told the researchers they learned to cook from their parents or grandparents, which included washing raw chicken as a part of their cooking preparations. It became a learned habit. Others told the researchers that they had been cooking for so long – some for 30 to 40 years – and had no issues during that time that they didn’t feel a need to change now.

“It was really interesting to see how many people honor their families and where they come from in the ways that they cook at home,” said Gilman. “There were some people I spoke to that said they would be willing to change their behaviors but if grandma came over they would wash the chicken because you’re never going to serve chicken that hasn’t been washed to your grandma, because of that honoring of tradition.”

Quinlan added that a lot of different factors need to be considered. “Washing raw poultry is a ‘habit’ for some consumers but for others it may be a cultural practice that is much harder to change,” said Quinlan. “Researchers and those promoting public health messages need to be sensitive and consider all aspects of why people do what they do.”

Gilman also mentioned that some of the previous messaging lacked an alternative behavior for people to do instead of washing the raw chicken, which also added to their resistance to change. She compared it to smoking cigarettes. “A lot of the successful ways people stop smoking cigarettes is when they have an alternative behavior with nicotine lozenges or gums. If you’re used to taking a cigarette and putting it up to your mouth, they need something to replace that feeling,” said Gilman. “With chicken washing, it’s hard to tell people to change their behavior and do nothing and just season it and put it in your pan.”

But participants wanted to know what they were supposed to do with the wet layer of “stuff” on the raw chicken (which is actually just protein in water). They needed an alternative plan to replace some of the behaviors. “There are some recommendations – like just blotting your chicken with paper towels. That’s actually a part of our next steps is that we’re working to develop an updated messaging plan that really hits some of the results that we did find,” said Gilman.

Quinlan said they are currently working with collaborators at New Mexico State University and the Partnership for Food Safety Education to develop updated education messaging around raw poultry washing and they hope to have the new education materials (all digital and online) ready to be released and distributed later this year.

Both Gilman and Quinlan were surprised by how open people were to educating themselves as to why washing raw chicken was bad. “This is important information that we are using to develop the new education materials – people need to know not only what to do but the ‘why’ behind it,” said Quinlan.

This research was supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Media interested in speaking with Quinlan should contact Annie Korp, news manager, at 215-571-4244 or

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