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Experts say a food thermometer, not the color of the meat inside the chicken, is the best way to make sure cooked chicken is safe to eat. Getty Images
  • Researchers say many home methods of checking to see if chicken is safe to eat aren’t effective.
  • In particular, they note the color of the meat inside the chicken isn’t a good indicator.
  • Experts say a food thermometer is the best safety method to check to see if chicken has been cooked to at least 165°F (74°C).

Half of home cooks may be misjudging if chicken is safe to eat.

That’s according to a new study from the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture Research.

In the study, researchers surveyed 3,969 households across five European countries about common methods for checking for chicken’s doneness.

They found there are a number of inadequate indicators of food safety.

Using the chicken’s meat or juice color to assess readiness is one such example. Although a popular method, researchers reported that the inner color of chicken changes at temperatures too low to kill common poultry pathogens such as Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Safely cooked poultry can vary in color from white to pink to tan, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The study’s researchers also reported bacteria remaining on a chicken’s surface even after cooking, suggesting alternative or additional methods of measuring safety are necessary.

While thermometers can help, the researchers reported that only 1 in 75 households use them while cooking chicken.

Eating undercooked chicken causes foodborne illness resulting in high fever, digestive malfunction, and dehydration for more than 1 million people in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The most common bacteria found in contaminated chicken is Campylobacter, but chicken may also contain Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens, says Caroline West Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

This is what she says people can expect after being infected by common chicken bacteria:

  • Most people who get ill from Salmonella can have diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps that begin between 6 hours and 6 days after infection. Symptoms can last from 4 to 7 days.
  • People with Campylobacter infection experience similar symptoms starting 2 to 5 days after infection and lasting up to a week. Nausea and vomiting may also occur.
  • With C. perfringens, people develop diarrhea and abdominal cramps within 6 to 24 hours, typically 8 to 12 hours. The illness usually begins suddenly and lasts for less than 24 hours, but vomiting and fever aren’t associated symptoms.

Experts agree that cooking chicken to at least an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) is a better measure of food safety than any clock timer.

But contamination and infection can occur before anyone eats the chicken.

“Proper prep begins at the point of purchase,” Passerrello told Healthline.

She advises shoppers to “place raw chicken in a disposable bag before putting it in the bottom of your grocery cart to avoid cross-contamination of other items you’re purchasing.”

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a nutritionist and the author of “Skinny Liver,” says handling fresh chicken safely should be done by placing the package in the lowest part of the refrigerator so juices don’t drip onto other shelves and foods.

When you’re ready to cook, use gloves to place the raw chicken on a poultry-only cutting board.

“This helps prevent juices and other components cross-contaminating other foods,” Kirkpatrick told Healthline.

Also to prevent the spread of germs, wash your hands, but don’t wash the chicken. Doing so increases your risk of foodborne illness because water droplets can spread active pathogens around the sink area and countertop.

Preventing foodborne illness requires an objective approach, Passerrello says.

“Safety is not subjective,” she said. “To be sure chicken is safe to eat, use an objective measure instead of a subjective observation.”

By this, she means use a food thermometer.

“The most reliable way to determine if chicken is safe to eat is by using a food thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat,” Passerrello said. “Be sure the tip of the thermometer isn’t touching any bones or fat.”

Kirkpatrick agrees that this is the best method for checking chicken’s doneness.

“The 165°F is the standard temperature that chicken needs to be at to be safe,” she said. “But based on the type of poultry, it may differ where you insert the thermometer.”

At home, Kirkpatrick usually checks the internal temperature of poultry in multiple places, such as the breasts and thighs, to ensure it’s evenly cooked and safe to eat.