I oversee the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the public health regulatory agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. FSIS’ mission is clear: to ensure that the nation’s meat, poultry and processed egg products are safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled.

FSIS inspection personnel ensured public health requirements were met in establishments that slaughter or process 164 million heads of livestock and 9.83 billion poultry carcasses. They also conducted 7.1 million food safety and food defense procedures to verify that systems at all federal facilities continue to maintain food safety requirements. FSIS is a science-based agency and science drives our policy decisions, all with a goal of reducing foodborne illness. In fact, science is our greatest defense against foodborne pathogens that constantly adapt to their environment.

Foodborne illness is a serious threat to the nation’s public health and many people put themselves at risk for illness by not adequately washing their hands, or by washing their poultry. Many people continue to wash their poultry because that’s what they grew up doing or seeing in their homes. But this is dangerous and can spread bacteria around the kitchen. Juices from raw poultry can transfer bacteria onto kitchen surfaces, utensils, and other food. Once bacteria lands on a surface it can remain active for up to 36 hours, unless the surface is sanitized.

Recent USDA research conducted in a test kitchen revealed some startling results: 60 percent of the test kitchen participants contaminated the inner sink after washing or rinsing raw chicken. Participants also frequently placed raw vegetables and lettuce in the same sink, which ultimately led to cross-contamination.

Researchers also observed that 99 percent of participants either didn’t wash their hands or didn’t accomplish all steps of correct handwashing. Inadequate handwashing has been identified as a contributing factor to foodborne illness, especially when preparing raw meat and poultry. Hands can become vectors that move potential pathogens found in raw meat and poultry around the kitchen, which can contribute to foodborne illnesses.

I understand that old habits may die hard, but I encourage you to wash your hands, not your poultry. If you are brining or marinating your poultry and must rinse or wash it, be sure to thoroughly clean and then sanitize all kitchen surfaces to eliminate the risk of cross- contamination. Also remember that proper hand washing after handling raw meat, poultry and eggs can greatly reduce the risk of bacterial cross-contamination.

I realize it might seem ridiculous for me to explain how to properly wash your hands, but research shows that we all need reminders to achieve basic public health prevention. Here are the five handwashing steps that everyone needs to remember:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel.

You can find additional food safety tips by visiting www.foodsafety.gov, or by calling the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1.888.MPHotline (1.888.674.6854).

Mindy Brashears

About the author: Mindy M. Brashears is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s deputy under secretary for food safety. She previously was a professor of food safety and public health and the director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech. She earned her doctorate in food science from Oklahoma State University.

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