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Washing Chicken: Why it's Dangerous to Your Health

Jul 09, 2014 03:30 PM EDT

Public health experts are urging consumers to stop washing their raw chicken, worried about the spread of a dangerous but little-known bacteria.

The United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched an initiative last June begging consumers and professionals to stop washing their chicken after an overarching survey revealed that nearly 44 percent of all citizens in the UK wash their raw chicken before cooking it.

According to the FSA, this is alarming because it has long been known that the dangerous bacterium Campylobacter relishes damp environments and can easily spread to hands, mouths, and cooking surfaces through water droplets.

"Campylobacter is a serious issue. Not only can it cause severe illness and death, but it costs the economy hundreds of millions of pounds a year as a result of sickness absence and the burden on the NHS. Telling the public about the risks and how to avoid them is just one part of our plan to tackle Campylobacter," FSA Chief Executive Catherine Brown said in a recent statement.

The FSA also reportedly found that while many people are familiar with food-borne illnesses like E. coli  and Salmonella, they often have never even heard of Campylobacter.

According to a Harris Interactive study conducted by the FSA, only 28 percent of a surveyed public sample knew about the dangerous bacteria, and only 31 percent of those familiar with it knew that it could be spread through raw poultry.

The UK sees an estimated 280,000 Campylobacter infections a year, and a striking four in every five cases can be traced back to contaminated poultry.

Alarmingly, the bacteria is not isolated to the UK. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), campylobacteriosis is one of the most common diarrheal illness in the United States, and affects an estimated 1.3 million people every year.

The CDC suspects that the disease if often overlooked, as it often presents itself as mild food poisoning. However, in persons with compromised immune systems, a Campylobacter infection can spread to the blood stream, causing serious life-threatening conditions or permanent damage to the nervous system.

The FSA has also recently issued a plea to broadcasters to stop showing images of people washing chicken, as the action is not condoned by the FSA or the US Food Safety Organization.

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