Eating raw or undercooked chicken can make you very sick. Raw chicken is likely to contain harmful bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter. When you eat raw or undercooked chicken, you risk getting a foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning. Foodborne illness can cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and chills. In some cases, food poisoning from chicken can even be life-threatening. So why exactly can’t you eat raw chicken? There are a few key reasons.
Bacteria in Raw Chicken
Raw chicken often contains dangerous bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter. Here’s some more information on these bacteria:
- Salmonella – This bacterium is one of the most common causes of food poisoning from poultry. According to the CDC, there are over 2,500 types of Salmonella bacteria. Salmonella infection causes symptoms like diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, and vomiting. In severe cases, it can lead to severe dehydration and even death.
- Campylobacter – This is another bacterium that can contaminate poultry. Campylobacter infection also causes diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. It’s one of the most common bacterial causes of food poisoning. Campylobacter is killed by cooking temperatures above 160°F.
These harmful bacteria are killed and made safe by thoroughly cooking chicken to an internal temperature of 165°F. So eating raw or undercooked chicken puts you at risk of bacterial contamination and food poisoning.
How Bacteria Gets in Raw Chicken
There are a few ways that bacteria gets into raw chicken in the first place:
- Infected Birds – Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria may infect live chickens on farms. Then the bacteria gets passed on to the meat during slaughter and processing.
- Cross-Contamination – Bacteria can be transferred from infected chicken to other chicken. This happens through direct contact or shared use of equipment and surfaces in slaughterhouses and kitchens.
- Infected Workers – If farm or factory workers have Salmonella or Campylobacter and don’t wash hands thoroughly after using restroom, the bacteria can get on the chicken.
- Contaminated Equipment – Using contaminated knives, cutting boards, utensils when handling raw chicken spreads bacteria to the meat.
Proper handling and cooking are the main defenses against this bacterial contamination.
Symptoms of Food Poisoning from Chicken
Eating raw or undercooked infected chicken causes typical food poisoning symptoms:
- Diarrhea – May be bloody or watery
- Abdominal cramps and pain
- Muscle aches
Symptoms start 6-48 hours after eating contaminated chicken. Most people recover without treatment after 4-7 days. But Salmonella can cause severe illness in the elderly, infants, and those with weakened immune systems. See a doctor if diarrhea is bloody, vomiting won’t stop, or there are signs of dehydration like dizziness or lack of urination.
Dangers of Eating Raw Chicken
There are a few risks and dangers associated with consuming raw or undercooked chicken:
One of the main risks is foodborne illness, also called food poisoning. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and fever. Food poisoning from chicken most commonly results from Campylobacter or Salmonella bacteria.
In otherwise healthy individuals, symptoms manifest 6-48 hours after exposure and last 4-7 days. Most people can recover at home with rest and hydration.
However, food poisoning can be life-threatening in those with weakened immune systems like the elderly, infants, and pregnant women. It can also lead to severe dehydration. See a doctor if you have bloody diarrhea, vomiting that won’t stop, or signs of dehydration.
For some individuals, there are longer term complications from foodborne bacterial illnesses:
- Reactive Arthritis – Joint pain and inflammation that occurs days or weeks after the initial infection.
- Guillain-Barré Syndrome – A rare disorder where the immune system damages nerve cells, causing muscle weakness or paralysis.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome – Some studies link food poisoning with later development of IBS, an intestinal disorder causing pain, diarrhea, bloating.
These long-term effects are not very common but have been associated with Campylobacter and Salmonella gastrointestinal infections.
Bacterial Infections in Bloodstream
While relatively uncommon, Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria can sometimes spread from the intestines into the bloodstream. This leads to a potentially life-threatening infection that requires prompt antibiotic treatment and hospitalization.
Those with compromised immune systems or existing health problems like cancer or liver disease are at higher risk for invasive blood infections. Symptoms include high fever over 102°F, rapid breathing, confusion, and red spots on skin.
In rare cases, food poisoning from contaminated chicken can be fatal. Those at highest risk of severe illness or death include infants, young children, older adults, transplant recipients, cancer patients, and those with HIV/AIDS.
Estimates report around 450 deaths each year in the U.S. due to nontyphoidal Salmonella infections from all food sources, not just chicken. Death usually occurs when the bacteria enters the bloodstream leading to severe sepsis. Prompt medical care is vital.
Overall, while serious complications and death are not common, the safest approach is always to assume raw chicken contains hazardous bacteria and cook it thoroughly before eating.
How to Avoid Food Poisoning from Chicken
You can avoid foodborne illness from chicken by taking proper care when handling, cooking, and storing it:
Safely Cooking Chicken
Cook raw chicken thoroughly to kill any Salmonella, Campylobacter, or other bacteria:
- Use a food thermometer – Chicken should reach an internal temperature of 165°F.
- Check doneness – Look for the meat to be opaque and white with no pink parts.
- Bring soup and stew to a boil – Boiling chicken stews or soups ensures safety.
- Don’t partially cook or microwave – Partial cooking can allow bacteria to survive.
- Cook stuffing to 165°F – Stuffing stuffed in chicken also needs thorough cooking.
Follow these proper cooking guidelines to destroy any harmful bacteria in chicken before eating it.
Prevent raw chicken juices from spreading bacteria:
- Separate raw chicken – Keep raw chicken away from other foods in your grocery cart and refrigerator.
- Use different cutting boards – Use one for raw chicken and another for fresh produce or bread.
- Wash hands and surfaces – After handling raw chicken, wash hands, utensils, sink, and counter tops before continuing cooking.
- Don’t reuse marinades – Sauces used on raw chicken can harbor bacteria and shouldn’t be reused.
Following these kitchen best practices reduces the risk of cross-contamination.
Chilling chicken inhibits bacteria growth:
- Refrigerate promptly – Refrigerate or freeze raw chicken within 2 hours of purchasing.
- Marinate in fridge – When marinating raw chicken, always do so in the refrigerator, not at room temperature.
- Follow “use-by” dates – Cook or freeze chicken before the use-by date on the package.
- Defrost in fridge – Thaw frozen chicken in the refrigerator, not at room temperature.
Proper chilling and thawing helps prevent foodborne illnesses.
Can You Make Raw Chicken Safe to Eat?
There are some methods that attempt to make raw chicken safe for consumption, though they are not completely reliable:
Simply rinsing raw chicken under water does not kill or remove enough bacteria to make it safe for eating. Any bacteria present can easily spread to nearby surfaces. You should not wash raw chicken.
Soaking chicken in a saltwater brine can inhibit bacteria growth to some extent by creating a high-salt environment. However, brining does not kill all the harmful bacteria. Raw brined chicken would still be considered unsafe to eat.
The process of pickling or curing chicken in an acidic solution may destroy some bacteria. But it’s challenging to achieve full safety with homemade pickling. Botulism spores could potentially survive. Commercial pickled chicken products only use precooked chicken to ensure safety.
Exposing raw chicken to a radiative energy source like gamma rays, x-rays or electron beams can kill bacteria and make it safe to eat raw. However, irradiation is not widely available or used on commercial chicken in most countries. Most raw chicken you purchase in stores is not irradiated.
Freezing for Sushi
Chefs making raw chicken sushi or sashimi typically freeze chicken for several days at -4°F or below before using. This can destroy some parasites. However, bacterial pathogens may still survive freezing. Freezing doesn’t make raw chicken entirely safe.
So ultimately, none of these methods are completely reliable. Cooking raw chicken remains the only way to guarantee its safety.
Eating raw chicken poses a significant risk of food poisoning from Salmonella, Campylobacter, or other bacteria. Cooking chicken to 165°F kills any hazardous bacteria present, making the meat safe to eat. Prevent cross-contamination and chill chicken properly to inhibit bacteria growth. While some methods like pickling, brining, and freezing provide partial safety, cooking chicken fully remains the only sure way to avoid foodborne illness. In summary, raw chicken should not be consumed because of the dangers from bacterial contamination. Always cook chicken thoroughly before eating.