How to Buy Chicken That Won’t Make You Sick

How to Buy ChickenVomiting. Diarrhea. Cramps. Food poisoning is no fun. In most cases, your body will heal itself as long as you drink plenty of fuids until the GI problems clear up.

And the leading cause of serious food borne illness in the United States is Salmonella, which commonly comes from poultry. If you know how to buy chicken, you can reduce your chances of catching this bug.

Symptoms of Salmonella also include chills, joint pain, headaches, muscle pain, and malaise. Possible complications may also include reactive arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome.

Symptoms appear between 12 and 72 hours after eating contaminated foods, and will usually last four or five days.

So the question of how to buy chicken safely is an important one. 

Let’s start with whole chickens. Chickens and chicken parts, even “100% natural” ones, can be injected with a flavored saltwater solution. Not only do you get more salt, you pay chicken prices for water. The saltwater solution is added to maintain or add flavor to the chicken for the packaging, shipping, and storage time.  Your clue: the word “enhanced” on the label.

As much as 15 or 20 percent of ground turkey or chicken could be skin and fat. And the skin, with its pores and folds, is likely to be the most contaminated part of the bird. Look for “chicken meat” or “turkey meat” in the ingredients. Just “chicken” or “turkey” could mean added skin.

To avoid meat from chickens that were fed antibiotics, look for “USDA Certified Organic” on the label, or a claim like “No antibiotics administered” that’s next to a “USDA process verified” logo.

Why is it important to know how to buy chicken that is not treated with antibiotics?

Antibiotics stop bacteria by killing them or halting their growth. Resistant bacteria have genes that enable them to survive certain antibiotics by neutralizing the drugs, by pumping the drugs out of their cells, or by altering the cell structure that the antibiotic attacks so that it’s no longer vulnerable.

“People sickened by antibiotic-resistant bacteria are more likely to have longer and more expensive hospital stays, and may be more likely to die as a result of the infection,”  explains Lance Price, an environmental health scientist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

What the terms on food labels mean:

Antibiotic free: Term not permitted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because all foods should be free of antibiotic residues.

No antibiotics administered or Raised without antibiotics: Animal never received antibiotics. Not independently verified, so claim depends on the honesty of the company making it.

USDA Certified Organic or American Grassfed Certified: Use of antibiotics prohibited. Verified by independent audits.

Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved: Antibiotics permitted only to treat sick animals. Verified by independent audits

The good news:

If you cook meat, poultry, and fish thoroughly, you’ll kill any harmful bacteria they may contain. Beyond that, here’s some good advice about how to help prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria:

  • Don’t expect antibiotics to treat colds, flu, most coughs, bronchitis, sore throats not caused by strep, or runny noses. They’re caused by viruses, which antibiotics don’t kill.
  • Don’t stop taking prescribed antibiotics early because you start feeling better.
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizers like Purell don’t increase antibiotic resistance. The jury is still out on whether antibacterial soaps and dish detergents that contain triclosan do.

Awareness is important, but it should be noted that most food is safe to eat.

While there is never a guarantee that you won’t contract a Salmonella infection, you can reduce your risks when you know how to buy chicken and when you follow a few general food safety tips.

What food safety tips would you add to this list? Tell us in the comments. 

Sources: CDC, CSPI; Ann. Intern. Med. 157: 348, 2012.

This post was originally published in 2014 and is updated regularly.

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8 Replies to “How to Buy Chicken That Won’t Make You Sick”

  1. Cleaning all preparation surfaces and thoroughly washing your hands after handling raw poultry will prevent getting infected or passing on the germs to others.

  2. If you buy from a local producer, buy air cooled rather than water cooled chicken —- far less chance of contamination.

    1. From Nutrition Action Healthletter: Yes, dry is better. Foods with higher “water activity” (free water molecules) tend to support more microorganisms.

  3. What’s your advice on buying from local farmers? We have two in our little town who raise their own birds, don’t use antibiotics, slaughter and clean them on their own farms. They sell fresh right after the “harvest,” then freeze for later sale. They’re much tastier than supermarket chicken and have no additives. I’m careful in the kitchen, and haven’t had a problem in the 5 years or so I’ve been eating them. Your opinion?

    1. From Nutrition Action Healthletter: There are not a lot of hard data on contamination rates of locally-raised poultry. Organic meats and poultry are just as likely to have foodborne pathogens on them as conventionally-raised meats and poultry, but the organic are less likely to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria. For you, supporting local farmers, no unnecessary use of antibiotics, tasty chicken, you’re handling the poultry carefully and you haven’t had a problem in 5 years. Sounds like a win-win situation.

  4. Looking at the cleanliness of the store, the freezers, the meat department if you can do so….and thermometers if there are any where you can see them, to be below 40 degrees.

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