A recent study conducted by a group of scientists in Norway indicates that most consumers don’t use thermometers to check if chicken is cooked safely, and that they ignore government advice on chicken cooking techniques.
The study surveyed 4,000 households across the UK and Europe, and interviewed and videoed 75 study participants as they prepared and cooked chicken. With chicken consumption increasing due to the negative health impacts associated with red meat, the study aimed to determine if the methods used to decide if chicken was ‘done’ were contributing to the number of food-borne illness incidents associated with home-cooking each year. Such incidents accounts for approximately one third of all reported food-borne illnesses in Europe.
Participants in the study included young single men, families with children and the elderly. On average, participants cooked and ate a homemade chicken meal 7.6 times per month. All participants cooked and ate a chicken meal at least once every 2 weeks.
The participants who were videoed used a variety of methods to check whether the chicken was done. Only one participant, a 70 year old woman, actually used a thermometer to check.
The most common methods used to check were cooking time and checking the colour of the inside meat.
Over half of the participants used cooking time as a guide to determine whether chicken was done. The time was determined either by recipe instructions or through past experience in preparing the dish.
Almost half of participants checked the inside colour of the meat to determine done-ness. They explained that pink meat indicated the chicken was undercooked and white meat indicated it was safe to eat. The researchers proved this method to be unsafe. In a parallel experiment they checked the colour of the inside meat at various temperatures and determined it changed colour when cooked to approximately 60°C. In order to safely destroy pathogens in chicken, Canadian provinces recommend that whole poultry should be cooked to at least 82°C and that ground poultry and pieces of poultry should be cooked to at least 74°C (82°C in Manitoba).
Other approaches included checking the texture (although few participants could explain why they were doing this or what they were looking for), checking the outside colour, using sound or smell, or tasting it (approximately 10% of participants).
Food Safety vs. Tastiness
Most participants in the study knew that undercooking chicken was a potential food safety hazard, however also expressed concerns about cooking chicken for too long making it dry and not pleasant to eat. It appears that food safety and tastiness come into conflict in the preparation of poultry products.
Challenges with Recommendations
The safest way to check whether chicken is safe to eat is to use a food thermometer. However, many household don’t have this piece of equipment and the researchers found that using thermometers was problematic for consumers due to long response time.
The researchers also determined that it was difficult to provide a clear set of guidelines on how to cook chicken safely. No easy ‘rule-of-thumb’ could be found, and the variety of chicken products and recipes makes it difficult to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach to preparing poultry. This was further compounded by national differences in contamination levels, how chicken is bought, and cooking styles used in different households.
Cooking Chicken In a Commercial Environment
When cooking chicken in a commercial environment, proper time and temperature controls must be enforced to ensure the health and safety of customers. The only effective way to check that chicken is safe to eat is to use a food thermometer inserted into the middle of the chicken product to ensure that it reaches a temperature of 82°C for at least two minutes.
Time and temperature control techniques must be taught to anyone who handles, prepares or cooks food in a commercial environment. For more information, refer to the Safe Cooking Temperatures Fact Sheet provided as part of the CIFS membership program.