It all started when the Food Standards Agency issued a press release warning people against washing raw chicken, to mark Food Safety Week 2014. What can I say? Those guys really know how to celebrate.
Chicken washing, they said, is a practice that can actually increase your chances of contracting campylobacter food poisoning due to the danger of contaminating work surfaces, clothing and other foods with splashed water.
On Monday, quite a few of the papers – including the Telegraph, Mail, Mirror and Metro – picked the story up. Ha! I said. I am not the FSA’s target audience! Who are these so-called chicken washers? What person in their right mind would even consider washing a chicken? I scoffed (quite literally, as the evening’s menu turned out) and thought no more of it.
Then Tuesday and this article by Tim Dowling in the Guardian on alternative food hygiene practices happened. I posted it on Facebook with the textual equivalent of a droll chuckle, and waited for the reassurances to flow in. And they came – believe me, they came. But so did the chicken washers.
“Well, it’s how my Granny and Mum prepare chicken and fish, so I do the same. It’s never done us any harm. No plans to change. Definitely not as a result of a news article!”
“Haha! I always thoroughly wash chickens too!”
“I know that some halal and west indian cooks favour washing any and all meat, but often in lemon juice rather than water.”
“My mother always does, learnt it at her knee!”
“Give it a couple of months until this same advice is reversed. Still washing my chicken…”
“I once washed a bird when I was a vegetarian teenage nanny. Grim, but funny making it wee itself by running water through the neck.”
Again, my reaction – and that of many of my Facebook friends – was one of complete amazement. But chickens are ALREADY clean! we raved. It’s not like the bird, once plucked, is allowed out to roll around in the dirt one last time! Chickens aren’t carrots – they’re not sprayed with pesticides prior to sale! What are you LIKE, you crazy chicken washers?!
Then on Wednesday, the Evening Standard announced that over half of Londoners – 51% – confessed to having washed their chicken in the last few months.
Seldom has my worldview been so comprehensively challenged.
It has never once occurred to me to wash chicken. Not once. Yet now it seems that just over half of everyone I know has been doing it ALL THE TIME.
People I thought I knew – friends! – have all this time been standing at their kitchen sinks washing chickens. A sizeable proportion of all the dinner parties I have ever been to have been given by chicken-washers. Who knows – there might even be chicken-washers in my own family. It could be IN THE BLOOD.
When the story first broke, it was easy to write off the chicken washers as weirdos. When I realised there were a handful of them, I began to think that perhaps I should stop thinking of them as weirdos and instead start treating them like an unfortunately persecuted minority group. Now, I’m starting to wonder: am *I* in the persecuted minority group?
The Food Standards Agency has caused me to doubt not only long-standing friendships, but the essence of who I am and what I believe. This is JUST how Truman must have felt at the end of the film.
Do you wash YOUR chicken? Tell me. I need to know the truth.
A version of this post featured on the Huffington Post UK on 19 June 2014.