Home cooks caught on tape handling chicken unsafely

Salmonella occurs naturally in chicken but can be rendered harmless to humans through proper handling and cooking.
Salmonella occurs naturally in chicken but can be rendered harmless to humans through proper handling and cooking. Sacramento Bee file

It’s shocking – sickening, really – what a UC Davis expert caught on videotape in 120 home kitchens.

Many people handled raw chicken and then did not wash their hands thoroughly before touching other surfaces. They cooked the meat to less than the 165 degrees recommended to kill salmonella.

Christine Bruhn, director of the university’s Center for Consumer Research, got funding for the project from Foster Farms, a Livingston-based poultry company that has been dealing with an outbreak.

Company and government officials say salmonella occurs naturally in chicken but can be rendered harmless to humans through proper handling and cooking. Bruhn’s team recruited the video participants in four West Coast cities and asked them to prepare a chicken dish and salad of their choosing.

The results, Bruhn said in a phone interview Tuesday, were stark. Forty percent undercooked the chicken, 38 percent did not wash their hands after touching raw meat, and only 10 percent washed for the recommended 20 seconds.

“People think they’re doing everything right, but they become so casual,” Bruhn said. “They are not paying attention to washing their hands.”

Foster Farms, the top-selling poultry company in the West, employs about 3,500 people at its Livingston chicken plant and 1,300 in the Turlock turkey operation. The salmonella was tied to raw chicken from Livingston and two smaller plants in Fresno. About 600 illnesses were reported, but no deaths.

Foster Farms said it has greatly reduced salmonella detections through sanitation and other measures at the chicken ranches and processing plants. The Davis study was part of an effort to get consumers to do their part.

The videos were shot in August at homes in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle. Bruhn said the participants, recruited at shopping malls, were frequent buyers of raw chicken.

The results were especially troubling for grilled chicken, which can have a greater risk of uneven cooking and poor sanitation than in an indoor kitchen. Health experts say salmonella cases tend to spike during summer grilling season.

Bruhn said raw chicken is as sticky as honey and can easily spread bacteria if cooks do not wash their hands.

“We had people touching the door to the refrigerator, the door to the cupboard, the sliding glass door to go outside,” she said.

The basic idea also applies to cooking other meats, Bruhn said, with some tweaks. Hamburger, for example, should be cooked to at least 160 degrees.

Bruhn announced the chicken findings last week at a UC Davis news conference. It included Karen Ross, California secretary of food and agriculture.

“The California poultry industry has made great strides in reducing salmonella on raw chicken,” Ross said. “However, even at this lower level, consumers still need to practice safe handling and cooking of raw poultry.”

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation in Modesto, also took part.

“The poultry industry takes its responsibility to produce a safe product very seriously, as evidenced by current food safety programs that are drastically reducing the incidence of salmonella,” Mattos said. “At the same time, the research indicates that the consumer recognizes they also have a role in ensuring safety.”