What’s for dinner tonight? There’s a good chance it will be chicken – now the number one species consumed by Americans. Interest in the safe handling and cooking of chicken is reflected in the thousands of calls the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline receives. The following information answers many of the questions these callers have asked about chicken. Many of these calls we also get at the local County Extension Office and the USDA website is where we go for many of the questions we get.
All chickens found in retail stores are either inspected by USDA or by state systems that have standards equivalent to the Federal government. Each chicken and its internal organs are inspected for signs of disease. The "Inspected for wholesomeness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture" seal ensures the chicken is free from visible signs of disease.
Inspection is mandatory, but grading is voluntary. Chickens are graded according to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s regulations and standards for meatiness, appearance and freedom from defects. Grade A chickens have plump, meaty bodies and clean skin, free of bruises, broken bones, feathers, cuts and discoloration.
Fresh or Frozen
The term fresh on a poultry label refers to any raw poultry product that has never been held below 26 degrees (-3.3 C). Raw poultry held at 0 degrees (-17.8 C) or below must be labeled frozen or previously frozen. No specific labeling is required on raw poultry stored at temperatures between 0 and 25 degrees (-17.8 C and -3.9 C).
Dating of Chicken Products
Product dating is not required by Federal regulations, but many stores and processors voluntarily date packages of chicken or chicken products. If a calendar date is shown, there must be a phrase immediately adjacent to the date that explains the meaning of that date such as sell by or use before.
The use-by date is for quality assurance; after that date, peak quality begins to lessen, but the product may still be used. It’s always best to buy a product before the date expires. If a use-by date expires while the chicken is frozen, the food can still be used because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.
Hormones & Antibiotics
No hormones are used in the raising of chickens. Antibiotics may be used to prevent disease and increase feed efficiency. Before the bird can be slaughtered, a "withdrawal" period is required from the time antibiotics are administered. This ensures that no residues are present in the bird’s system. FSIS randomly samples poultry at slaughter and tests for residues. Data from this monitoring program have shown a very low percentage of residue violations.
Additives are not allowed on fresh chicken. However, if chicken is processed, additives such as MSG, salt or sodium erythorbate may be added, but must be listed on the label.
Rinsing or Soaking Chicken
Washing raw poultry before cooking it is not recommended. Bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread to other foods, utensils and surfaces. This is called cross-contamination. Rinsing or soaking chicken does not destroy bacteria. Only cooking will destroy any bacteria that might be present on fresh chicken.
How to Handle Chicken Safely
Fresh Chicken: Chicken is kept cold during distribution to retail stores to prevent the growth of bacteria and to increase its shelf life. Chicken should feel cold to the touch when purchased. Select fresh chicken just before checking out at the register. Put packages of chicken in disposable plastic bags (if available) to contain any leakage which could cross-contaminate cooked foods or produce. Make the grocery store your last stop before going home.
At home, immediately place chicken in a refrigerator that maintains a temperature of 40 degrees (4.4 C) or below. Use it within one or two days, or freeze it at 0 degrees (-17.8 C). If kept frozen continuously, it will be safe indefinitely.
Chicken may be frozen in its original packaging or repackaged. If freezing chicken longer than two months, overwrap the porous store plastic packages with airtight heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap or freezer paper, or place the package inside a freezer bag. Use these materials or airtight freezer containers to freeze the chicken from opened packages or repackage family packs of chicken into smaller amounts. Proper wrapping prevents "freezer burn" that appears as grayish-brown leathery spots and is caused by air reaching the surface of food.
There are three SAFE ways to thaw chicken: in the refrigerator, in cold running water and in the microwave. Never thaw chicken on the counter or in other locations. It’s best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Boneless chicken breasts, bone-in parts and whole chickens may take one to two days or longer to thaw. Once the raw chicken thaws, it can be kept in the refrigerator an additional day or two before cooking.
ALL chicken needs to be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees (73.9 C) as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.
Kristin Woods is the regional agent in Food Safety in Southwest Alabama.