Washing raw chicken can lead to a potentially dangerous form of food poisoning caused by Campylobacter bacteria, which spread onto hands, clothing, cooking utensils and work surfaces as water droplets splash off the raw meat. Now, the UK’s Food Standards Agency is urging people to stop washing raw chicken in an effort to reduce the estimated 280,000 people a year who become ill from Campylobacter.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is issuing the call – as part of Food Safety Week – as new figures show 44% of people in the UK wash chicken before cooking it.

The FSA is also urging producers of TV food shows to make sure they do not show people washing raw chicken. The agency makes the plea in the form of a letter that has been co-signed by major food companies.

Catherine Brown, chief executive of the FSA, says their research shows that – in keeping with food safety recommendations – most people are careful to wash hands after touching raw chicken and making sure it is thoroughly cooked. But it also shows it is common practice to wash raw chicken, which is not recommended.

“That’s why we’re calling on people to stop washing raw chicken and also raising awareness of the risks of contracting Campylobacter as a result of cross-contamination,” she explains.

She says the agency’s campaign includes not only raising public awareness about the risks and how to avoid them, but also working with farmers and producers to reduce infection in broiler chickens and contamination in slaughtered birds.

Campylobacter causes an infectious disease called campylobacteriosis which leads to diarrhea (sometimes bloody, with nausea and vomiting), abdominal pain, cramping and fever within 2-5 days of exposure, although some people do not experience any symptoms.

In people with weak immune systems, the bacteria can spread to the bloodstream and cause a serious life-threatening infection. Those most at risk are children under 5 and older people.

In certain cases, Campylobacter infection can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, reactive arthritis and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a serious condition of the nervous system.

In the following video, 67-year-old Ann Edwards of Hertfordshire in the UK describes how she became infected with Campylobacter in 1997 and developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, which left her paralyzed from the chest down. Although no longer paralyzed, she is still living with the consequences today – she has no movement in her toes and walks with a stick.

Campylobacter is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the US, where the FoodNet surveillance network of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates about 14 cases are diagnosed each year per 100,000 people, although many cases also go undiagnosed or unreported.

In the UK, Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning, affecting an estimated 280,000 a year, 80% from contaminated poultry, say the FSA. The agency estimates it costs the economy hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of sickness absence and burden on the health service.

The FSA survey found that public awareness of Campylobacter is much lower than for other types of food poisoning. More than 90% of those surveyed had heard of salmonella and E. coli, but only 28% had heard of Campylobacter. And, of those who had heard of it, fewer than a third knew poultry was the main source of infection.

The reasons people most cited for washing chicken were to remove dirt (36%), get rid of germs (36%) and because they had always done so (33%).

According to the CDC, even one drop of juice from raw chicken meat contains enough bacteria to infect a person.

People can become infected not only from washing raw chicken, but also from using unwashed chopping boards or utensils they used to cut the raw meat to also prepare vegetables or other raw or lightly cooked foods.

As part of the awareness campaign, the FSA provide a guide to handling raw chicken.

In April 2013, Medical News Today reported how, according to an Environmental Working Group analysis of results from government tests, much of American meat is contaminated with superbugs or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The analysis found that 81% of raw ground turkey, 55% of raw ground beef, and 39% of raw chicken parts were infected.