Chicken & Poultry Safety Tips

Handling, Cooking & Storing Guidelines

How to handle chicken and poultry safely
Image Source / Getty Images

Raw chicken and poultry can carry the salmonella bacteria, which is responsible for more cases of food poisoning than any other pathogen. Fortunately it's easy to avoid getting sick from chicken and poultry, as long as you follow safe food handling practices. And it starts before you even get home from the store.

During distribution to retail stores, fresh chicken is kept cold in order to extend its shelf life as well as to prevent bacteria growth.

That's because temperature is one of the six factors that contribute to the growth of bacteria

You can't check the temperature of the packages of chicken you buy at the store, but they should certainly feel cold to the touch, and should be among the last items you select before checking out. Packages of chicken should be wrapped in plastic bags to prevent leakage onto other items in your grocery cart.

Once you're home, you should immediately place your chicken in a refrigerator that maintains a temperature of 40°F or colder, and use it within 2 days. Otherwise, it should be frozen at 0°F.

By the way, your fridge has a temperature control, but it might only be numbered on a scale of 1–10. But those numbers don't tell you what the actual temperature is. To know that, you need one of these refrigerator thermometers. Just place it in your fridge and use it to calibrate the temperature. Even if your fridge does display temperatures, a fridge thermometer will still help confirm that the temperature your fridge displays is correct.

 Get two, and use one in the freezer.

Thawing Frozen Chicken & Poultry Safely

First of all, never defrost chicken on the counter or the microwave. It's not uncommon to see various sources suggesting that it's acceptable to thaw frozen meat or poultry in the microwave. But it's not. Ever. Even if your microwave has a defrost setting on it.

The reason for this is simple. Microwaves generate heat, and heat produces temperatures that promote the growth of bacteria. The defrost setting on a microwave is simply alternating short blasts of power followed by long intervals of no power. This is a terrible way to defrost a chicken, because it combines hazardous temperatures and the passage of time. Time is another of those six factors I mentioned earlier. That's because it takes time for bacteria to reproduce, and they do so geometrically.

Some sources claim that it's all right to defrost meat or poultry in the microwave "in an emergency." To which all I can reply is that this list of food poisoning symptoms might help clarify your definition of the word "emergency."

Safe Handling of Chicken & Poultry

The correct way to thaw frozen poultry requires planning ahead for the time required to thaw it in the refrigerator. Whole chickens may take up to 2 days to fully thaw in this way, while boneless breasts should thaw overnight. Once the product thaws, it should be kept in the refrigerator no more than a day before cooking it.

Just like meat, fish or any animal-based food product, raw or undercooked chicken carry certain bacteria. These bacteria can cause illness in large numbers.

Therefore, to avoid illness we need to limit bacteria's ability to multiply, or kill them altogether. Limiting their ability to multiply requires making sure that food products are not left at room temperatures — or specifically, temperatures between 40°F and 140°F — for more than an hour.

And remember, freezing doesn't kill bacteria, either — it just makes them cold. The only way to kill food-borne pathogens is by thoroughly cooking the food.

Another concern with respect to working with uncooked poultry is cross-contamination. Cross-contamination can happen when raw poultry — or even just its juices — somehow come into contact with any other food products but especially ones that are already cooked or ones that will be eaten raw, such as salad vegetables or greens.

An example of how this can happen is if a cook were to cut raw chicken on a cutting board and then later slice fresh tomatoes on the same board without washing it first.

Approximate Chicken Cooking Times

The following table gives approximate cooking times for different chicken types and cooking methods:

Type of ChickenWeightRoasting at 350°FSimmeringGrilling
Whole Broiler/Fryer3-4 lbs.1¼-1½ hrs.Not suitable60-75 min.
Whole Roasting Hen3-4 lbs.1¼-1½ hrs.Not suitable60-75 min.
Whole Capon4-8 lbs.2-3 hrs.Not suitable15-20 min./lb.
Whole Cornish Hens18-24 oz.50-60 min.35-40 min.45-55 min.
Breast Halves, bone-in6-8 oz.30-40 min.35-45 min.10-15 min./side
Breast Half, boneless4 oz.20-30 min.25-30 min.6-8 min./side
Legs or thighs8 or 4 oz.40-50 min.40-50 min.10-15 min./side
Drumsticks4 oz.35-45 min.40-50 min.8-12 min./side
Wings or wingettes2-3 oz.30-40 min.35-45 min.8-12 min./side


Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Next page >>

Bacteria in Raw Chicken & Poultry

Here's a list of some of the bacteria that are associated with poultry products:
  • Salmonella Enteritidis may be found in the intestinal tracts of livestock, poultry, dogs, cats and other warm-blooded animals. This strain is only one of about 2,000 kinds of Salmonella bacteria; it is often associated with poultry and shell eggs.
  • Staphylococcus aureus can be carried on human hands, in nasal passages, or in throats. The bacteria are found in foods made by hand and improperly refrigerated, such as chicken salad.
  • Campylobacter jejuni is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in humans. Preventing cross- contamination and using proper cooking methods reduces infection by this bacterium.
  • Listeria monocytogenes was recognized as causing human foodborne illness in 1981. It is destroyed by cooking, but a cooked product can be contaminated by poor personal hygiene. Observe "keep refrigerated" and "use-by" dates on labels.

Chicken & Poultry Inspection & Grading

Inspection is mandatory for all chickens sold in the United States. Each chicken is individually examined to make sure that it is free of disease, is wholesome and fit for human consumption. Each chicken's organs are examined, too.

Grading is a voluntary system for evaluating quality, and one that is paid for by the chicken producer, not the taxpayer. Grading criteria include general appearance and meatiness, and takes into account the presence of defects such as bruises or other discoloration, cuts, or broken bones or feathers.

Fresh Vs. Frozen Chicken & Poultry

If the label on a raw poultry product bears the term "fresh," that indicates that it has never been colder than 26°F. Poultry that has at any time been kept at 0°F or colder must have a label indicating that it is "frozen" or "previously frozen," whatever the case may be.

Interestingly, poultry that has been kept at temperatures colder than 26°F but warmer than 0°F can be labeled neither fresh nor frozen.

Chicken & Poultry Product Dating

Federal regulations don't require poultry products to be dated. However, most retailers will date the chicken products that they sell.

If they do opt to date the product, regulations do require that there be a phrase signifying whether the date is a "sell by" date or a "use before" date, and the explanation must appear right next to the date.