Raw chicken isn’t much to look at. Nothing is super appetizing about it but rub on some oils and herbs and roast it—delicious! It’s why so many Americans can look past the grossness of this raw meat and consume 8 billion chickens each year—that’s 201 pounds per person per year on average!
But did you know that 1 in 4 pieces of chicken carry bacteria that can make you sick? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness each year with 1 million of those cases coming from poultry.
We consulted with Heather Danielson, MA, RDN, director of guest services at Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center in Sun City, AZ, for the 411 on how to check if your chicken is safe to consume or if it’s time to toss it out; but first, here’s why chicken can be dangerous.
Why raw chicken is bad for you
Poultry is a TCS (time/temperature control for safety) food. This means that it is most likely to become unsafe if not handled properly – whether raw or cooked.
“Raw chicken provides a good environment for bacteria such as nontyphoidal salmonella, which comes from farm animals and people,” Danielson said. “Given that most of the chicken we purchase is handled in so many ways, there are many opportunities for that chicken to be exposed to different bacteria.”
These dangerous bacteria can be transmitted if chicken is undercooked, but also if your raw chicken comes into contact with your countertops, cutting boards or other foods.
“Preventive measures for getting a foodborne illness from consuming raw chicken include cooking it to the minimum internal temperature, being careful to avoid cross-contamination from other food and making sure the person handling food doesn’t have signs of illness, such as diarrhea or vomiting,” Danielson said. “It’s also important to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water to prevent the spread of germs.”
4 ways to tell your chicken is bad
Whether frozen or raw, here’s how to tell if chicken is bad and it’s time to bag it up and toss it out.
Sell by date
Checking the “best by date” is the first step to see if raw chicken is safe to eat. If the printed date on the package of chicken passed, the quality of the meat might not be great anymore.
“A general rule of thumb, if the raw chicken has a sell by date, only use or freeze it within 3 to 5 days of that date,” Danielson said. “If you purchased ready-to-eat chicken, that can be stored for up to a week if it’s held at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.”
Uncooked frozen chicken can last about 9 to 12 months in the freezer. Check out these tips to properly defrost and thaw your meat.
Color and packaging
Fresh raw chicken should have a pink hue to it with fat parts being white. If the color fades, it’s looking yellow or gray in color, has mold or a different color tinge, it’s no longer safe to eat.
When purchasing frozen chicken, check for signs of thawing and refreezing. “This would be fluid stains on packaging and frozen liquids on the food or inside the packaging,” Danielson said. “This shows signs of time temperature abuse and should be discarded.”
Bad chicken will have a strange and unpleasant (funky) odor, sometimes even like rotten eggs. Fresh raw poultry may not be totally odor-free, but it shouldn’t smell funky. If it’s sour smelling, out it goes.
If it looks OK and smells OK but feels extra slimy, sticky or dry from freezer burn, it’s time to say goodbye. “Raw chicken can have a somewhat slimy feel to it, but if it has a slimy feel after it is rinsed off and patted dried, it’s no longer good,” Danielson said.
Another test is to press down on the meat. If the flesh is so soft it leaves an imprint, it’s likely bad.
Is there any way you can salvage bad chicken?
“It’s not worth the risk,” Danielson said. The last thing you want is to be holed up by your toilet sick with food poisoning.
Any other tips to ensure you don’t get sick?
After you purchase raw chicken from the store, properly store it immediately when you get home in your refrigerator or freezer. Don’t let it sit out on the counter or anywhere else that isn’t refrigerated below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
When cooking chicken, always double check with a thermometer to ensure that poultry is cooked properly. “Chicken, at minimum, should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit,” Danielson said. “Make sure to take the temperature in the thickest part of the chicken and take at least two readings in different locations.”
How long does cooked chicken last?
You’ve got the chicken cooked, but how long will it last in your refrigerator? It’s best to consume it within four days. You can also store cooked chicken in the freezer if you need a little bit longer.
If you’ve eaten questionable leftovers, count yourself lucky. Old food could be dangerous to eat even if it passes all the tests (five senses). You may think you have an iron stomach but keep this in mind: 3,000 people die each year from foodborne illnesses. It just isn’t worth it.
There are many ways to tell if your raw or cooked chicken has gone bad. If one or more things seem “off,” it’s time to toss it out.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” Danielson said.