Meat is a staple food in many diets and an excellent source of protein, iron, vitamin B12, and other essential nutrients.

However, meat, including poultry and fish, often carries harmful pathogens — both bacteria and viruses — that may cause food poisoning. Thus, it’s considered a high-risk food (1).

In some cultures around the world, such as those in the Caribbean — where I live — washing meat is a common practice that’s considered an indicator of cleanliness in the kitchen. Acidic agents like lemon juice or white vinegar are typically included in the process.

Still, you may want to know whether washing meat is safe or effective.

This article explains whether there’s any validity to this practice, the benefits and risks of washing meat, and appropriate food safety guidelines.

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Washing meat involves rinsing chopped or whole cuts of meat under running water to remove debris or remnants from trimming away the skin and fat.

The meat may be presoaked in a solution of water and acid — often white vinegar or lemon juice — then rinsed under running water prior to being seasoned with a dry rub or marinade, after which it’s cooked or frozen.

This practice is likely influenced by cultural practices in some countries, as well as where you buy meat.

In developing countries, wet markets and cottage poultry processors (also called poultry or meat depots) provide important sources of fresh meat. These markets sell recently slaughtered meat or let you select the animal for slaughter (2).

Given these circumstances, it’s commonplace to rinse the meat to wash away blood or other physical contaminants, such as broken bones, that may have been introduced during slaughter.

Summary

Washing meat entails presoaking the meat in an acidic solution, rinsing it under running water to remove blood and physical contaminants introduced during slaughter, or both. It’s common in regions where fresh meat is sold.

Raw meat, poultry, and fish may be contaminated with harmful bacteria and viruses that lead to food poisoning (1, 3).

Common foodborne pathogens include the bacteria Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, and E. coli, plus the viruses norovirus and hepatitis A. Together, these pathogens cause around 48 million cases of food poisoning in the United States each year (3, 4).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that washing meat with plain running water doesn’t remove foodborne pathogens (5).

In fact, washing meat using plain running water may pose additional food safety and health risks by spreading bacteria to other surfaces and foods that will be eaten raw, such as fruit or salad (5).

However, one study found that scalding veal at 140°F (60°C) for 4 minutes, or spraying it with 180°F (82°C) water followed by a lactic acid spray, reduced bacterial growth on the surface of the meat (6).

Additional studies show that washing the surface of meat with an acidic solution like vinegar or lemon juice reduces the number of bacteria on raw meat, compared with washing with plain water (7, 8, 9).

Summary

Acidic solutions reduce bacteria on raw meat, but washing meat with plain running water doesn’t remove foodborne pathogens and may pose additional food safety and health risks.

If you wash raw meat under plain running water, splashing water may transfer bacteria and viruses from the meat’s surface to nearby foods, utensils, and cooking surfaces. This may spread germs and increase the likelihood of you getting sick (5).

This video from the CDC illustrates how these pathogens may spread.

Scrubbing the cooking surface or sink with soapy water doesn’t necessarily remove these pathogens and may increase your risk of food poisoning or the occurrence of food spoilage (10).

Therefore, it’s best to avoid washing meat under running water.

Summary

Washing meat with plain running water spreads foodborne pathogens to other foods, utensils, and cooking surfaces and increases your risk of food poisoning.

You can use food-grade acidic solutions to wash or prepare meat, as they help kill bacteria, add flavor, and tenderize the meat (7).

Here are common acidic solutions used in meat preparation:

  • White vinegar. This common cooking and cleaning ingredient is also one of the most common acids for washing meat. It contains acetic acid, which has been shown to reduce bacterial volume and growth on the surface of beef, chicken, and duck (7, 8, 9, 11).
  • Lemon or lime juice. These citrus juices are not only useful in daily cooking but have also been found to reduce bacteria on meat and retain the flavor of cooked meat (7).
  • Food-grade sodium hydroxide (NaOH). This food additive prevents mold and bacterial growth and is used to remove the skins of fruits and veggies like tomatoes or potatoes. NaOH reduces bacterial growth on the surfaces of meat (6, 10, 11, 12).

However, it’s not yet known whether these acids also destroy foodborne viruses. As such, it’s best practice to thoroughly cook all meat, which is the most effective way to kill harmful germs, according to the CDC (5).

Summary

Food-grade acidic solutions, such as vinegar, lemon juice, and sodium hydroxide, reduce bacteria on raw meat and are used for tenderizing and flavoring purposes.

Practicing appropriate food hygiene at home is the best way to ensure that your raw meat and cooked products remain safe.

The CDC and U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) offer simple guidelines (13):

  • Wash hands and surfaces. Wash your hands often with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Scrub food surfaces, such as cutting boards, countertops, and sinks, before and after use (14).
  • Separate foods. Keep raw and ready-to-eat foods separate to avoid cross contamination and the spreading of germs (15).
  • Thoroughly cook foods. Cook meat to the appropriate internal temperatures to kill harmful pathogens and make it safe to eat.
  • Chill. Promptly refrigerate meat and safely thaw meats in cold water, the refrigerator, or the microwave. Learn more about refrigeration storage here (16).

If you choose to wash your meat before cooking or freezing, there aren’t well-established rules on the practice. However, here in the Caribbean, it’s common to mix 1 part of vinegar to 2 parts water or simply place the meat in a bowl and squeeze the juice of 1–2 lemons or limes onto it.

Next, trim the meat as desired, following general food safety guidelines.

Summary

Practicing food safety procedures at home and cooking meats thoroughly are the best ways to ensure that raw meats and cooked products are safe to eat.

Washing raw meat with plain water is ineffective at removing bacteria and may cause more harm than good by spreading foodborne pathogens to other foods and across cooking surfaces.

Acidic solutions like white vinegar and lemon juice may lower the number of bacteria on raw meat, although this practice is influenced by cultural practices and purchasing habits.

However, it’s unclear whether these acidic solutions kill harmful foodborne viruses, so practicing appropriate food hygiene is the best way to ensure that raw meats are safe to cook or freeze.