Thursday, September 5, 2013

HCR -- Poultry Washing Rant

I started by day with a rant in a Facebook timeline. 

That "don't wash your chicken" meme is multiplying like somebody dripped raw chicken into gravy and didn't replace the gravy. I saw it again on NBC last night, and that Julia Child video snip is repeated endlessly by writers without imagination using it to fill air time. It finally got on my last nerve. One of my Facebook friends very sensibly posted this:
Another stupid fear mongering about germs. If splattering and misting is the problem, wash the damned chicken in a bowl! I wonder how many people will now cook their chicken unwashed.
And she's correct. This paranoia about germs is getting out of hand. The irony is that genetically modified food products and ubiquitous chemical sprays (many of which are forbidden in much of the modern world outside the US) are getting a pass while locally produced food products have to fight local ordinances and zoning restrictions that make it hard for someone to even feed themselves, much less -- God forbid -- share something with a neighbor or sell it to a stranger in a local farmers market. But back to my rant. The comment thread went like this...
Hostess -- And then clean the bowl and the sink thoroughly with warm water and detergent.
Comment -- Brining is good!
Comment -- Carnivore problems, heh. [*I liked this one.*]
Comment -- You're supposed to cook it unwashed :-(
Comment -- I don't see the point of washing chicken, unless there's visible schmutz on it. You get rid of the bacteria by cooking the chicken thoroughly, not by washing it off. The article is the opposite of fear mongering, it's telling people to relax and accept the fact that their chicken skin is far from sterile when they put it in the oven.
Hostess --  I make chicken curry mostly, not roast chicken. Indian cooking calls for removing the skin and then cutting it up. No way is it safer to handle unwashed chicken to which fecal matter and other stuff is sticking and then hoping that it will all get "cooked." I am sorry, I call this unnecessary and stupid. If splashing contaminated water is the problem, there are ways to avoid it. Meat handling requires care. As Bill said, it is a carnivore problem.
Comment -- Also assumes your water supply is basically clean. Bacteriology is never absolute, just managing populations.
That was enough for me. I've been waiting for years to get this out. 
John Ballard "Managing populations." Good point. I was fortunate in the early days of being in the food business to go to food handling classes required by a local health department. (This was in Florida but could have been anywhere in the Sixties.) There were three classes less than hour, a week apart. During the first class someone took potential contaminants into plastic lab dishes with a growing medium -- a little piece of something from the floor, strand of hair, fingernail cleanings. I can't recall if anyone spit or coughed into one or not, but the lesson was to see what they looked like after being incubated until the last class, two weeks later. We got to see what all these bacteria-covered contaminants looked like, which was, of course, pretty disgusting.

The lesson was that bacteria, which are on virtually everything in our environment, need three conditions to multiply -- moisture, a growing medium and proper temperature. Take away any of these three and the population will not reach the danger level. That's why we can enjoy dried fruits and beef jerky (dried), pickles and preserves without refrigeration (pH levels either kill or render reproduction) or insure food is in a "safe temperature range." Very hot kills bacteria, and very cold renders them unable to multiply.

Over the years I have seen the "safe temperatures" get adjusted one way or another (like the ratio of external heart compressions and breaths in CPR) but the main idea has not changed: limit the number of germs and you are not taking chances.

This is why for years food workers were allowed to handle both food and money. The amount of germs getting passed around was not considered to be enough to cause a foodborne illness outbreak. (I always worry about bank tellers, especially during flu season. And as every mother knows, sending kids to daycare or school is certain to make them sick, especially when the school year starts. And babies that spread poop are the main vectors of cholera and dysentery in places where the water may not be potable but people take reasonable precautions when they prepare food.)

So I'm with the Hostess on this one. And I'm also an advocate of the "ten-second rule" as long as your gonna eat whatever hit the floor and it didn't land buttered side down or clearly in or on something nasty. I'm really glad I retired before all this rubber glove obsession got started. I'm glad they use them (now that others have that job) but when I was in the business I only saw them when the product was too nasty to touch, or stank, or some OCD boss made everybody do it, typically one who was also so cost-conscious that there were limits on the number of gloves allowed per shift, resulted in people not replacing them after a smoke break. I have seen plenty of hand washing but never saw anyone sanitizing a contaminated glove.

Trivia factoid--the main reason for not allowing food, drink, smoking or gum in food production areas is keeping hands away from eyes, noses, lips and pockets. (Not to mention spitting.)

And while I'm ranting, next time you hear this conversation, it's a good time to point out that sick food service workers who are the most poorly paid service people in the economy, also never have paid PTO which they might take advantage of when they are sick. Just know and accept that every time you eat out you are being served by a population that could be working with something you may not want to catch, and it sure as heck ain't gonna be a moisture particle from a package of poultry.
I don't want to come across as a curmudgeon, but straightforward candor is one of the benefits of getting older. In the same way that unpopular social movements are the responsibility of young people, speaking truth to power is the responsibility of old people. When you have responsibilities to family and employers advocating unpopular  ideas is not smart. It can get you fired or shunned.

This principle is related to the idea expressed by James Baldwin when he said "The most dangerous product of any society is the man who has nothing to lose."  We have seen it most recently in movements in the Middle East. The Syrian tragedy is a painful example. And at least one contemporary thinker suggests that Syria has been brought to civil war in no small way by a series of climate disasters resulting in the existential crisis we are now witnessing.  But I digress.

Before leaving the food discussion I have two additional items to add.

First -- and this gets back to that "population control" point -- I heard another horror story from a more recent food handler's training class than the one I mentioned in the Sixties. Since then standards of safety have really improved (despite the tenor of my complaining) and most of the country is now moving to something called ServSafe, an industry-wide program of best practices that has been rolling out nationally for the last ten or fifteen years. When it came to the place where I last worked I was privileged to attend one of the inaugural series of classes.

The instructor, an experienced sanitarian with years on the job, told a story about a family that got sick one Sunday after lunch. The mother was planning corn on the cob for lunch, so to save time (a pot of water takes a long time to come to a boil) she cooked it while they were getting ready for church and left it on the stove, covered, until they had it for lunch. After they ate they got sick with what was later determined to be botulism poisoning.  One person died, one didn't get sick who had not eaten corn, but the baby, who didn't have corn but ate something cut by a fork someone else had used, got sick enough for a fatal dose of botulism. The problem was a combination of time and temperature. Corn taken directly from boiling water is safe, but a tiny amount of the bacteria in what turned out to be a perfect incubation temperature multiplied to a fatal level over a period of hours.

This leads to the second point. Just about any food that humans can eat is a perfect place for germs to grow that can make us sick. The only protections we have are the ones we know about and learn about over time. We know, for example, that the alcohol in wine kills germs, so wine at room temperature is not dangerous. In fact, it often turns sour, indicating that the acidity level (like that of preserves or pickles) is sufficient to kill bacteria.  But who would suspect corn? Or potatoes, for that matter? It turns out that a baked potato is a potentially hazardous food, especially if the skin is broken. It is a perfect breeding ground for anything that will make us sick. One famous case of mass food poisoning was an event that served barbecue-stuffed baked potatoes to several hundred people. The problem was not that combination, but the time that lapsed between when those two ingredients were put together and when they were actually eaten. Critical hours passed as the potatoes were prepped, stored, transported, stored again, distributed and finally eaten.  

Another case of foodborne illness involved a local buffet. I was discussing it with the sanitarian who happened to be in that territory, suggesting that they may have had a problem with improper storage and handling. He said the place was clean as a pin and always had good reports. The investigation was still incomplete and they still had not discovered the source of the problem, but they were looking at the spices used in the kitchen. It never occurred to me until then, but herbs, spices and teas are not customarily handled in a strictly safe manner. We are protected from sickness by the small amounts typically used as well as cooking. (Nobody I know either washes or irradiates herbs or spices.) It is for this reason that the "sun tea" fashionable a few years ago was not a good idea, since teas, unlike coffee beans, are not subject to a level of germ-killing heat until they hit the scalding water used to make tea.

As we enter another holiday season it's good to be reminded about safe food handling practices, especially involving time and temperature. But this foolishness about washing chicken has less to do with food safety than with well-meaning people way up the food chain trying to get attention.

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