Munchies

Trolling Aside, Is It Actually Safe to Eat Raw Chicken?

A viral post shows off “medium rare chicken strips,” but is eating raw chicken safe? Experts say the risks outweigh the benefits.

by Nick Rose
Jan 19 2017, 11:00pm

Foto via Facebook

It all started with an internet troll. A clever troll. A convincing troll. But the troll's post led to an investigation of a frequently asked but complicated-to-answer question: Is it safe to eat raw chicken?

If you poked around enough on the internet last week, you may have seen commentary regarding a Facebook user named Morgan Jane Gibbs, who claimed that she was integrating raw chicken into her diet in order to eat "cleaner" in the new year. Armed with the hashtags #newyearsresolution #clean and #cleaneating, Gibbs showed off what she called "medium rare chicken strips," saying, "They're so good can't believe ive neever [sic] tried it like this before. Can't wait to dig into this with my homemade salad and veges [sic]."

The post, which got more than 200 shares, elicited the obligatory "You are nuts," "RIP," and "Worse than Taco Bell" comments. But in the era of trolls, food trends, and fake news, it wasn't immediately obvious whether or not Gibbs was for real.

Turns out she wasn't, and that her trolling campaign ended up being quite successful—successful enough to get us asking ourselves just how risky it is to eat raw chicken.

The notion may seem unappetizing and indeed dangerous to a lot of readers, because generally, we're taught that raw chicken is a favorite place to hide for dangerous foodborne illnesses. But on the other hand, it's actually quite common to eat raw chicken in Japan, where it is treated like steak or salmon tartare and considered pretty dang safe.

READ MORE: Most UK Chicken Is Contaminated and Shoppers Are Pissed

Not wanting to test this quandary on our own bodies, we enlisted Dr. Rick Holley, a food microbiology professor at the University of Manitoba. "It's probably safer to try to cross the 401 Highway at five o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon" Holley laughs. "The risks are significantly greater than beef tartare or raw salmon, for example, which are bad enough."

So, are chickens filthy animals? Well, we know that the way in which most of them are raised would fall under that banner, but the health risks for us humans actually have more to do with their insides.

"A minimum of 25 percent of chicken carcasses come in contaminated with salmonella, and there are about 2,600 species of salmonella," Holley explains. "If you look at the US baseline data on carcass contamination with campylobacter, and you're looking at anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of carcasses that are contaminated. Foodborne illness costs two-thirds of the money that diabetes costs, so it's not insignificant."

In fact, Holley says he doesn't eat any raw meats at all, in large part because of what he's seen as a food safety researcher. "I don't want to get sick and die from bacteria which occur naturally in those raw meats, and cooking is just a super solution!" Holley says, adding that restaurants choosing to serve raw meat should be "ensuring that their suppliers are able to declare that there are no pathogenic bacteria in the food that is being served raw."

And while dishes like chicken sashimi are fairly common in Japan, it's still pretty rare to find a restaurant that serves it in North America. But one place that does offer the controversial dish is Ippuku, an izakaya restaurant in Berkeley, California.

"Freshness is really the key," Ippuku owner and chef Christian Geiderman told Newsweek in 2013. "Our chickens come in with the heads and feet on, and the rigor mortis is still so fresh in them that you can stand the chickens up by their legs."

During that interview, Geiderman also said that working with a small chicken farm is the key and that he minimizes the risk of contamination by using meat from the inner breast of the chicken, which is far away from dangerous gut bacteria. The strips of raw chicken are also submerged in boiling water for 30 seconds before being cut up and served as an additional precaution.

Chicken sashimi. Photo via Flickr user Debs (ò‿ó)♪

A chicken sashimi dish. Chicken sashimi. Photo via Flickr user Debs (ò‿ó)♪

So, are chickens filthy animals? Well, we know that the way in which most of them are raised would fall under that banner, but the health risks for us humans actually have more to do with their insides.

"It's because of the metabolism of the bird," Dr. Holley says. "In any plant or animal, there is a relationship between the organism and bacteria. It's a natural relationship in any environment. In the case of contaminants in chickens, salmonella and campylobacter routinely colonize the intestinal tract of the birds, without any significant clinical effect on the birds."

And speaking of the gastrointestinal tract, that's exactly what is under siege in humans when they ingest raw or undercooked chickens. And the clinical effects are pretty fucking significant, to use Dr. Holley's terminology.

"With listeria, you can get brain damage," he warns. "Or, in some instances, you can get the entire intestinal digestive tract getting dissolved by the pathogenic organisms, like E. Coli o157 h7. The bacteria is able to penetrate the wall that separates the inside from the outside and the bacteria gets in your blood and grows like crazy and it can kill you!"

In other words, someone integrating raw chicken into their diet in the name of #cleanliving is living dangerously. "I would consider all raw chicken to be contaminated with organisms that could kill me; the risks far outweigh the benefits."

And if you simply must try the chicken tartare, leave it to the pros.