Washing Meat Is Cultural, Yet Mandatory

The process of washing raw meat, poultry, and fish has been passed down like family recipes.

July 25, 2022
Photo by Rocky Luten

I felt sick the first time I ate unwashed chicken.

I watched my friend de-package the chicken breast. He rinsed one side for all of one second; placed the chicken, with its package juice-water still dripping, in a baking pan; sprinkled a few seasonings then popped the pan in the oven for the breast to bake. I knew people didn’t wash their chicken, or any meat for that matter, but witnessing it was an entirely grotesque experience.

Even though the USDA does not recommend washing raw poultry, beef, lamb, pork or fish because bacteria can spread to other foods, surfaces and utensils, I can't bear not washing meat. In my family, washing meat is the start to well-prepared food and something my parents, sister, cousins, and so forth do. To us, it’s a ritual, a mandate. We care equally about cleaning, eating, and communing. Because of this, I don’t eat food from potlucks; I can’t vouch for who may or may not have cleaned the meat.

My process of washing meat starts with a running water rinse, then soaking in a large bowl of cold water plus lemon juice and/or vinegar for a few minutes to “wash” away the germs. I inherited washing meat from my Belizean-Nigerian family.

Cousin Bobbi, my family’s matriarch, recalled buying meat and fish at the only market on the river in Belize City approximately half a century ago. “Outside of extremely wealthy people, most bought their food, raw meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and seasonings, at the market. Beef was hung up and you told the person—he wasn’t a butcher; he could have been a farmer or a man there to just sell meat—what part you wanted, and he chopped it off and gave it to you.” At 83 years old, Cousin Bobbi’s memory is still sharp. She adds, “There weren’t mosquitoes or bugs flying around so that wasn’t a worry, but you saw someone handling your meat with their bare hands. That was more than enough reason to wash it at home.”

When she left Belize for the United States, she left the open market shopping behind; when she returned to her home country for subsequent visits, the market was replaced by modern grocery stores, all with pre-packaged meat. Yet, it never changed her stance on meat washing.

I never visited the market Cousin Bobbi referred to, but growing up, I always accompanied my mother to a live poultry shop for fresh-killed chicken. Feathers were everywhere, and I recall a Spanish-speaking man wearing a thick rubber apron and rubber boots splattered with water and flecks of blood. He used to jokingly ask me to show him which fowl to pick. I hid behind my mother’s hips and peeked out only when the chicken he grabbed from the cage started to squawk. The feathers floated to the ground and left a trail as the man disappeared in the back, the chicken’s neck firmly in his large hand. Shortly after, he always handed my mother a heavy brown paper bag which was placed in a white plastic bag. That was our dinner. When we got home, my mother washed all of the chicken by soaking it in a water, lemon, and vinegar mixture. Sometimes she let the neck sit a little longer since it was harder to wash.

My mother no longer frequents live poultry houses and local butcheries; neither do I. Instead, I purchase most poultry and meats from Trader Joe's in vacuum-sealed packages labeled natural or organic, and yet, I still wash each piece.

Cousin Bobbi’s meat washing process varies slightly from mine. She washes her meat in designated bowls or aluminum pans by rubbing half or quartered lemons on each piece. Immediately after, she seasons the meat, then cleans her sink and countertops with the leftover lemons to avoid cross contamination. I refuse to sanitize with used lemons, preferring to clean my sink, surfaces, and utensils with apple cider vinegar followed by soap and water. Sometimes after washing the utensils, I still place them in the dishwasher and turn on the antibacterial setting. My process is more time consuming but personally more reassuring.

The only person I know of Caribbean descent who does not wash their meat is my acquaintance Tracy. “I don’t have time for that,” she once said. “My mother did that often but it’s an old and outdated practice.”

I have also never seen a chef wash meat as I sat at the chef’s table or in a restaurant that has an open view to the kitchen. And while culinary shows are edited for television, I have also not seen one piece of meat washed. Lastly, the handful of times I participated in culinary classes, no one ever suggested that the meat needed to be washed. So. I know restaurant chefs are unlikely to wash their meat, yet, Julius Jackson, a St. Thomas-based professional chef, author, boxer, and former Olympic competitor, does. “The United States Virgin Islands was a port for slavery. Food for [slaves] were leftovers kept in dirty buckets. [By nature], animals aren’t clean. Chicken feet, pork feet, and pork snout are especially unclean,” he said in a phone interview.

“I wash down meat when I cook at home and cater for others,” Jackson continued. In his cookbook, My Modern Caribbean Kitchen, Jackson doesn’t need to tell recipe-followers to wash their meat before seasoning; this pre-preparation stage is expected. Again, it’s cultural. “Everyone I saw in the kitchen, including my mother, cleaned their meat before seasoning. My mother used acid—warm water and lemons or vinegar—to wash meat. This was especially true for chicken.”

Growing up, the women in my family did most of the cooking. My Nigerian dad, who I’ve seldom seen cook, is big on things being clean and organized, so I asked him about his preparation practices. When he cooks, he washes every piece of meat three times with a lemon-water mixture and after, cleanses it again with just lemons, then adds seasonings. While my dad’s practice started with meat, he extended a similar process to almost all food; he washes produce and rice thrice in water as well.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the process of washing meat. Jamila Robinson, assistant managing editor for food, dining, and community through food at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is totally anti-washing since it can spread salmonella and e-coli everywhere. For fish, she rinses and pats it dry.

“Meat washing is such a curious thing to me. You would never wash ground round or sausage so why wash a chicken?” Robinson says. “I definitely think it’s cultural. It’s important not to castigate cultural practices around food but also raise awareness about food safety.”

When washing meat, there is always the possibility of cross-contamination and spreading bacteria. This is why cleaning sinks and surfaces is integral to decontamination. In addition to Cousin Bobbi’s quick clean method and my lengthy one, Chef Jackson offers a step-by-step approach for cleaning meat. “Use a really large bowl because it prevents splashing and try to avoid washing in your sink.” He recommends using a stainless-steel bowl because it holds bacteria less than plastic. When it’s time to clean surfaces, “Always have vinegar because it doesn’t go bad. It also cleans and sanitizes surfaces if you don’t have bleach,” he said. Alternately, if vinegar is unavailable, lemon or limes work just as well, Jackson indicated.

Remember my opening story about my friend dripping chicken juice? I always believed meat juice was the culprit for spreading bacteria; it was the reason for my disgust and not just a figment of my imagination. While meat washing as well as cleaning and sanitizing after varies by individuals, even within my family, there is one thing every who washes meat should have: bleach.

Benjamin Chapman, professor and food safety extension specialist in the Agricultural and Human Sciences Department at North Carolina State University stated, “Any time we’re doing meal preparation at home, it’s important to understand raw meat, poultry, fish and egg products can come into our kitchens contaminated. The challenge with raw meat and poultry is the water that purges out of the meat during storage or refrigeration. That liquid contains pathogens that can be easily spread from the packaging, the meat itself, hands, countertops, and utensils. Sometimes it contains pathogens, sometimes it doesn’t.” He added, “Washing meat does not reduce the risk; it increases the chance of pathogens.”

But, for people like myself, my family, Jackson, and countless others who accept this practice as a cultural norm, Chapman adds, “Bleach-based solutions are the safest for cleaning. We don’t have good data that proves vinegar kills what’s in your sink. It does [help], but lemons and vinegar don’t do enough. Look at the liquid like it’s a pathogen, limit where it may tread then do a good job of cleaning and sanitizing. Clean to remove the liquid then sanitize to take care of any bacteria that may be remaining that you can’t see.”

I started keeping a notebook with recipes for my son. While he’s too young to touch raw meat, I allow him to pour vinegar in the water for soaking. When he’s older, I’ll show him how to wash meat to maintain family and cultural traditions; it will also ensure I’ll dine at his home. Today, however, I will, update my family tradition by sanitizing with a bleach-based solution instead of vinegar because tradition can change a little.

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Carolyn Desalu

Written by: Carolyn Desalu

Essayist + lifestyle writer. Literary agents, holler.


chefg101 April 6, 2023
Plain and simple-washing meat is dangerous. If you do not believe so, go to any heath department in any developed nation and ask. It is simple science.
Kestaa December 1, 2022
"Because of this, I don’t eat food from potlucks; I can’t vouch for who may or may not have cleaned the meat."

Interestingly, the opposite of this is why I don't eat food from potlucks; I can't vouch for who may or may not have spread salmonella, E. coli, trichinella, etc. to the salad dressing, sliced fruit, or other uncooked foods because they're not as diligent as the author about sanitizing their entire kitchen after washing their meat.
markdixon2 August 25, 2022
Cooking poultry to 165 degrees kills salmonella. THIS SHOULD BE THE END OF THE DISCUSSION. There is no logical reason to put yourself and people who eat your cooking at risk from cross-contamination because: " momma washed her meat."

The author says she's never witnessed a professional chef washing poultry. That's because guidelines--in my case, the county health department--forbids it and will count against you if you're caught doing it during an inspection.

One of he first lessons on food handling I received in culinary school was cross-contamination with a focus on residue from washing chicken. We did a test using an ultraviolet light and even after we carefully cleaned surfaces after we washed chicken, droplets remained on surfaces. It's more dangerous to introduce bleach in food prep areas than simply allowing heat to render the bacteria harmless.
Congruent January 18, 2023
1sec at 160 kills all pathogens or
1h at 140 does the same thing
FancyBeets August 9, 2022
I think it is more a generational or class thing than a skin color or cultural thing. My family is white and always washed meat before cooking. I learned later in life how water logged proteins don't brown properly, and how temperature sanatizes.
Lazymama August 5, 2022
I wash chicken because I don’t want to season slime from the packages. To each their own and I’d love to eat the author’s food knowing how much she cares about cleanliness. I don’t eat potluck food because I have trust issues around food preparation. Maybe it’s a neurosis on my part but whatever, it takes all kinds!
Citygirl August 7, 2022
I got sick after eating food at a party. People brought large pans of food. My guess is that somebody made the food the day before, the pan did not fit in the fridge and so it was held at room temperature overnight. But I don't really know what it was. I went to stay with a family for Thanksgiving and just about everyone ended up sick and vomiting. The stuffing can breed bacteria if not carefully prepared. There have been stories in the news about people getting very sick or dying from home canned food. A family event in the news turned to tragedy when home canned mushrooms were served. Street food is said to be sometimes safer because it is freshly prepared, but food in a fancy hotel may have been stored for a long time.
If I see food sitting in warming pans at an eatery, I will usually avoid that because I once got sick that way.
Sarah M. April 6, 2023
It is recommended to pat all meat down with paper towels, this eliminates the slime (which is just proteins) and makes for a better sear in the pan, which ensures that lovely caramelized crust happens.
Sarah M. April 6, 2023
It can take up to a week for food borne illnesses to cause symptoms. There is truly no way to know for sure unless the food is obviously "off," what causes those food borne illnesses.
Cat A. August 3, 2022
It's interesting how the author made multiple and careful references to how to properly sanitize surfaces, and how she understands the FDA guidelines and that washing meat is not scientific, and 30 other (I'm assuming) white people have jumped into the comments to explain FDA guidelines and sanitizing surfaces to her. We're white, not illiterate gang!
I learned to cook through mostly Asian foodways so I almost always rinse or blanch meat (especially chicken and pork feet). My family cooks Anglo food so I won't die from an unwashed roast, but I definitely think of Anglo kitchens as dirtier (especially since Anglo Australians don't usually rinse soap off dishes). Some things don't need a scientific explanation, like how soup scum in Japanese sounds the same as "bad".
It's probably fine but I'll always toss it, same as wearing shoes inside.
I think not rinsing dishes is gross, my fellow potatoes think rinsing meat is gross. We can just have our icks guys, you don't need to justify it!
Abner August 5, 2022
"It's interesting how the author made multiple and careful references to how to properly sanitize surfaces and 30 other (I'm assuming) white people "

You are forgetting that washing meat spreads salmonella which is potentially deadly... There is no way to properly sanitize stupid.

Lets use a different example and say someone wrote an article about how they ingest silver for health reasons. Someone else write that it can cause kidney damage and has no health benefits. The first person writes back that they know its not "scientific" but that it gives them a healthy blue feeling. Is this, lets make an asinine assumption and call them white, person being ignorant? You judge...
Sarah M. April 6, 2023
Here's the thing; humans do things because of ritual, because of nostalgia, because they were told to do a thing and never really thought about why. I bet you do many of those things that provide no benefit to you. We all do. A little largesse goes a long way.
Jonny17 May 24, 2023
I bet you that I don't :).
quality1 August 2, 2022
This is not done in civilized countries. However, if I had to buy produce in the USA, I might do it. American food standards are a joke and allow producers to get away with appalling practices that would appall civilized countries.
Sarah M. April 6, 2023
You seem to know very little about food supplies, and probably a great many other things as well.
FoodTingz June 13, 2023
This is almost 100% false, these are lies propagated to try and defend the slop that British people eat.
FrugalCat August 1, 2022
Not only do I wash meat. I exfoliate it! I scrub the skin of whole chickens with kosher salt.
Citygirl July 31, 2022
Possibly this meat washing practice goes back to an older time when animals were slaughtered outside and insects were still abundant on the planet. The careful washing might have been to remove any dirt, but also possible fly eggs and maggots. You probably would not see this done in a colder climate. Here this seems to have been done in a warmer climate where meat would spoil more quickly.
Whitney July 31, 2022
The only meat in my kitchen that ever hits water is chicken! In the case of a whole chicken it’s the inside because it tends to accumulate clotted blood in the spine area. Chicken breast get soaked in lemon water just to improve the flavor. I haven’t seen bloody liquid accumulate in the bottom of packaged chicken pieces in years. While I respect peoples practices, there is no way I would want to lemon juice a ribeye steak! It is scientifically proven that high heat kills bacteria.
MlcFoodie July 30, 2022
This article made me think of family! I found this to be a fascinating story about culture and the traditions we pass down to preserve our family history. It reminded me of my Chinese grandparents’ advice to only drink hot water, never cold, because they believed cold water was bad for the stomach. I also am reminded of TCM ( traditional Chinese medicine) beliefs about which foods promote heat or cold in the body, and what we’re supposed to eat for various illnesses. Doesn’t mean I’m not going to see a Western doctor, but I like to know the cultural historical beliefs about food too. I appreciate that the author included quotes from the food experts to show contemporary sanitation best practices.
Ellen N. July 29, 2022
I am disheartened that you would publish an article promoting unsafe food handling practices.

I am even more disheartened that this article doesn't explain the science behind not washing meat. Heat destroys bacteria. Washing meat spreads droplets of salmonella and e. coli all over the kitchen. Washing surfaces isn't enough to decontaminate the kitchen as the droplets go anywhere and everywhere.

Lemon and vinegar don't kill bacteria.
[email protected] July 29, 2022
I wash. I dry, I rinse again with lemon (always seemed part of the seasoning process). Then I season with salt and pepper. Then I leave in a stainless steel bowl to sit with the seasoning, in the refrigerator. then I take it out and prep it for whatever I am making. the only meat we eat is poultry.
Gordon July 29, 2022
Rinsing your food spreads the germs to the sink, dishes, and utensils that it comes in contact with. If you cook your chicken properly, it is sterilized.

If you absolutely insist that it be washed, get a kosher chicken; it has already been washed. It does not matter that you're not Jewish, you can but it anyhow!
don't E. July 29, 2022
Please do not use bleach to rinse your food!

I made an account just to say this, and am aghast that no one else in the comments has already said it. Bleach is poisonous! It can corrode metal; you do not want that in your digestive system!

While there are methods to use bleach to purify drinking water IN EMERGENCIES, that is for emergencies, and the ratio of water to bleach is so high, you only use 6 drops of bleach per gallon of water. Boiling your drinking water is more recommended than using bleach on your drinking water, so if you're so dead-set on rinsing your meat, might as well boil it instead!
Cookie July 31, 2022
The author isn't suggesting using bleach on the food, you mis-read that. It is for cleaning the sink and counters. And shame on those of you who chose to insult the writer instead of enjoying the cultural significance of the article. I've seen butchers drop meat on the floor too many times to not wash it, but I always immediately scrub out the sink, making sure to remove the rubber gasket over the garbage disposal too.
Food 52, please remove the racist comments about the author's culture asap.
Cat A. August 3, 2022
you made an account....but didn't read the article?
hhhaaaa October 21, 2022
Thank you! Bleach is toxic! and it is not a sanitizer!!!! We are two years into covid and people still haven't learned that bleach doesn't kill anything?!? That's an old wives tale. Meanwhile vinegar is in fact the best sanitizer you can use aside from hydrogen peroxide. So yes, vinegar will sanitize your meat, your counters, and your sink and utensils. Bleach will just poison you and not kill anything. I've worked in the medical field a long time. We DONT USE BLEACH becuase it is not a sanitizer!!!!!! If you are in the food industry please stop using outdated, ineffective, and toxic cleaning practices.

Also a note on lemons and limes, while they are acidic, the level isn't consistent so you can't ever know if you have changed the pH of a surface enough to sanitize it or not; and the sugars will help anything that isn't killed grow. Vinegar was standardized to 5% because it was proven to be an effective strength for sanitation purposes.
Sarah M. April 5, 2023
Pretty certain you've never worked in "the medical field for a long time" if you think bleach doesn't kill anything. My guess is you work in some woo woo baloney section of alternative medicine that has absolutely no scientific rigor and you think you're in "the medical field."
LED816 July 9, 2023
You’re an idiot and a liar. Bleach kills way more germs than vinegar and in 5-10 min of wet contact. Vinegar needs 30 min of wet contact to kill a portion of the germs. There is no way you work in the medical field and if you do, you should be fired.

No one here is talking about using bleach on food, just in their counters and sinks where it belongs.
Gregor July 29, 2022
Perhaps it is time in our evolution to stop the horrific slaughtering and eating our fellow animals . What happens is so bad that people can not even talk or think about the millions of terrified feeling creatures butchered so we can eat and wear them .
FightingFalcon July 29, 2022
I understand the cultural reasons that family's wash meat and pass down cultural practices related to food. I was taught many of them from my mother, grandmothers and great grandmother. Part of the reason I studied agriculture and food in college was because of the love of food and cooking I learned from them. But many of these culture practices may have had their place at one time, but many of them no longer do. Washing of meat of one of those. It can be the source of cross-contamination and spread food borne pathogens. While respect your cultural views, I cannot support the practice and do not recommend it. Here is one source with explanations why. I won't inundate the page with more. Take care. And enjoy food and cooking--I know I do.
Anne July 29, 2022
THANK you! I am not of your heritage but like you, i wash meat carefully (and clean all surfaces carefully afterward) every single time, and I'll never give this up, I don't care what the FDA says! It HAS to be clean, clean, clean. Thank you so much for being on the side of CLEAN!
Anne July 29, 2022
Ps: obviously then one cooks the meat to a high temp, and obviously One uses bleach to clean all surfaces and anything that the meat or rinsing water could have touched: complete sink, faucets, everything; tons of hot water and soap for the cook’s hands and forearms. No one is suggesting that washing meat obviates the necessity cooking to a high temp. We do all: wash meat, fully cook meat, and fully bleach-clean sink and area of cleaning and any possible thing that could have touched or splashed.
Cat A. August 3, 2022
Exactly, clean has many elements including... spiritual and feeling! idk what people say, I'm not gonna wear shoes inside and I'm gonna wash my meat!
Lazymama August 5, 2022
Right? No shoes indoors! Just gross!
flatbushbk July 29, 2022
While the science doesn't have a definitive answer, the anecdotal and historical records are pretty clear. Many of these practices originate from well before refrigeration. Salmonella poisoning from chicken is virtually unheard of in my parents home country, Trinidad. Yet it's very common here in the US.

The practice of refrigeration is a really interesting part of this story that I believe to be missing. And it might be apparent to the average us citizen at this moment as we're heatwave bound from coast to coast. While triple digit heat might be uncommon, countries in Africa and the Caribbean are pretty much 90 degrees all the time. In these places we see the combination of acid wash/soaks and long cooking times for meat. We even see this in the American South - fried chicken and barbecue. Both require significant cooking times and in many cases deploy sorts of acid washes or marinades.

Apple cider vinegar on fried chicken, chic fil-a. And in t.he case of barbecue long marinade times in cayenne pepper; over time the capsaicin breaks down into phenol acids. So the washing off of the acid doesn't occur but the main steps of placing in acid and long cooking times do happen. It's not surprising that these sorts of foods can last longer than say your medium rare steak without refrigeration.

Personally, I love my parents food traditions and cook them true to the handed down recipe; but I also love rare steak, which I don't wash before throwing it on the grill. The washing in acids does change the flavor and texture of the meat. Acid is particularly hard on beef and virtually makes every part no matter how prime into beef for stew.

So this is something I always think about. It's fascinating to see it written up. Only wish it included a bit about refrigeration and to a lesser extent pepper; bc I really believe that it proves the efficacy of the methods described.
AlClaud57 July 29, 2022
Couple of things to note:
A relatively weak food acid added to water will absolutely not accomplish any kind of disinfecting of contaminated meat. It's not quite strong enough at the shelf strengths, and any dilution makes it essentially as effective as water. While lemons have a strong taste the acid in lemons is not that strong against microbial pathogens.

What kills pathogens is the cooking - application of heat at a high enough temp for a long enough duration will accomplish what all the washing in the world cannot.

While there is always something to be said about traditions and the feels that come with that, when those traditions are tasked with an outcome they cannot produce, but people feel good about that outcome, is when you run an elevated risk of illness or spreading contamination inadvertently.

The Freakonomics folks have always maintained that we tend to assign bad outcomes to things we shouldn't, and don't assign bad outcomes to the things we should.