So, should you wash your chicken or not?

And what about eggs — or oranges? We spoke with experts about if, how and when to wash all of your food

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 14, 2023 12:30PM (EST)

Chicken leg falls into the water on a black background (Getty Images/andreygonchar)
Chicken leg falls into the water on a black background (Getty Images/andreygonchar)

The first time my future spouse saw me rinse a raw chicken, he was appalled. "But Julia Child says to!" I'm pretty sure I argued, to his disgust. Soon after, I found myself similarly horrified when he came in from a supermarket run and took the kitchen sponge to wipe down every can and every carton before putting the food away. That sponge, I reasoned, had to be way filthier than whatever Key Food grime had been lingering on the Coke I was about to bring to my lips. We want to practice safe, hygienic food handling for the obvious reasons — we don't want to ingest anything that could make us sick. But over the years, I've learned that the when, how, and even if of food washing evokes strong, often contradictory opinions — and even more questions. Do some people really wash eggs? Isn't just peeling an orange sufficient? And what, exactly, am I supposed to do with these dirty mushrooms? 

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This January, Suggest ran a feature by writer Dana Hopkins with the provocative title "Don't Wash Your Produce First: These 6 Bad Refrigerator Habits Could Be Costing You (Or Even Make You Sick)." The story stopped me dead in my tracks. For years, I have carried the offhanded wisdom of a Food Network icon who advised to wash all your produce before you put it away, so you have less prep work when you're ready to cook. I haven't actually always done it, because I am lazy, and have certainly never applied the rule to strawberries. But a fridge full of perfectly clean vegetables nevertheless always remained my platonic ideal. As Hopkins writes in Suggest, however, "Excess moisture could lead to bacterial growth which in turn could lead to illness." 

Texas A&M agrees. Its Tri-State Fruit and Vegetable Safety Consortium advises that whether you're keeping your produce on the counter or the refrigerator, "Do not wash whole fruits and vegetables before storing them."

If, however, you have strong feelings about not putting unwashed produce away, just be sure to wash and dry. Nancy Mitchell, a registered nurse and a contributing writer at Assisted Living, says, "The issue isn't necessarily with washing produce, but in your method of care and storage afterward. Bacteria thrive in moist environments, like the wet surfaces of fruits and vegetables. If you don't dry your produce thoroughly after washing, it could increase the risk of microbial growth and heighten your chances of transmitting some infection. Timing is key. If you aren't in the business of drying foods after washing them, consider washing them just before you eat. And be sure to store them in cool, dry areas."

What about herbs, though? Bon Appétit specifically recommends you clean them and then "roll them up in damp towels and store them in a plastic bag. You want to keep some moisture in there, so they stay fresh," and Serious Eats does too, saying, "Surface debris and bacteria on the herbs can cause more rapid decay." 

As for mushrooms, Salon's Michael La Corte advises to keep them out of the water. "Don't put the mushrooms under running water or throw them into a colander for a wash," he writes. "Because mushrooms are uber-porous, they'll soak up lots of that now-dirty water. Simply clean the mushrooms with a slightly dampened paper towel or cloth, removing as much grit, soil and grime as possible."

Where I get particularly baffled is over things you eat the insides of. I'll rinse a lemon if I'm using the zest, but I have never washed an orange or an avocado in my life. Yet the CDC advises that because "Sometimes, raw fruits and vegetables contain harmful germs such as SalmonellaE. coli, and Listeria," you should wash all fruits and vegetables, "even if you do not plan to eat the peel." 

Eggs, however, usually don't need to be washed. Lisa Steele, a "5th Generation Chicken Keeper" from Fresh Eggs Daily, says, "Store bought eggs have already been washed, so they need to be refrigerated when you get home, but don't need to be washed before eating and in fact its recommended they not be washed because the water and any bacteria can be pulled into the egg through the pores in the eggshell."

But, she says, "Farm fresh eggs from your own backyard, a neighbor, farmers market or local farm that haven't been washed don't need to be refrigerated, and can be left out on the counter at room temperature. Just before using, they should be rinsed in warm water and any dirty spots rubbed off with the fingers or a soft towel. (Cool water can pull any bacteria on the outside of the egg into the egg itself). Eggshells can have traces of bacteria such as e.coli or salmonella on them, so washing is a good idea."

After reading up and weighing the safety issues, I stopped washing my chickens years ago. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicology physician and director at National Capital Poison Center, says, "Many people think that washing or rinsing chicken or other types of meat can clean off bacteria from the surface of the meat. However, this process can actually lead to microscopic transfer of germs from the meat to sinks, countertops, utensils, and other kitchen surfaces. In one study of people who washed raw chicken, 60% were found to have residual bacteria in their sink after washing the meat. These bacteria can cause serious, and sometimes life-threatening, infections. Because of this, the FDA and USDA recommend that people do not wash their chicken or meat products prior to refrigeration or food preparation."

Kam Talebi, CEO of The Butcher's Tale restaurant in Minneapolis, similarly advises, "Never wash meat. All it does is splatter the juices from the meat all over your sink and the rest of the kitchen. Plus you want anything that you are about to cook to be dry for the best crust, bark, or outer texture."

But feelings on the subject run strong, and food is deeply personal. A 2022 Dutch survey revealed that a quarter of respondents wash their chickens. Cordell Robinson, a chef and creator of the food blog A Delicious Experience, says, "I wash my food, and to be more specific, I wash my chicken because there are a lot of impurities and unwanted fat that you get rid of. I know the argument is that it is not safe because salmonella will be splashed all over the place. That is simply not true. Washing most proteins in a bowl of clean water, squeezed limes, and distilled vinegar is very efficient."

Robinson further says, "Culturally, I can speak from a Jamaican American experience. Many of the locations where meat is processed and/or sold can be extremely unsanitary. When we got home from the markets you would wash the meat after seeing the environment it was in when you purchased it. Still today, the processing plants are filthy in the inner cities and working-class neighborhoods. Consumers know the meat is packaged poorly and it is not washed so we do what we have to do to survive. In my culture we continue to wash our food because it's more than tradition, it's our way of life and a precaution that gives us comfort."

Individual food storage and washing practices may vary, but it's common sense to err on the side of hygiene, and take it seriously if you feel off after eating something. 

One of the most effective yet often unspoken aspects of food safety isn't the cleanliness of the food itself. "The first best practice for healthy food washing is to always wash your hands before and after handling food," says Michael Murdy, a food scientist, beer brewer, chef, and founder of Robust Kitchen. "The hands should be washed thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water. This reduces the risk of cross-contaminating newly prepared food with bacteria from unwashed hands." And you know to keep washing your hands throughout the food preparation, right? Don't go directly from trussing a chicken to chopping a carrot. 

Also, keep your surfaces clean and avoid cross-contamination. Don't cut your carrot on the board you just trussed the chicken on either. Then, keep things clean. "I advise sanitizing all kitchen surfaces and utensils after washing them," says Murdy. "This is especially important when prepping or storing food for longer periods of time. Different surfaces require different cleaning techniques. Wood cutting boards should be washed with warm, soapy water, while non-porous surfaces like stainless steel and plastic should be disinfected with a solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water."

Individual food storage and washing practices may vary, but it's common sense to err on the side of hygiene, and take it seriously if you feel off after eating something.

"If people have questions about food poisoning, they can always contact poison control for expert advice," says Kelly Johnson-Arbor, "online at poison.org or by phone at 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day." And while my spouse and I still disagree about wiping off milk cartons, we know that keeping our hands and food surfaces clean is the smartest day-to-day strategy for staying safe — even if I'll never stop drinking from unwiped soda cans and eating unwashed oranges. 


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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