Preparing for the arrival of bird flu, the government on Wednesday gave advice for making chicken safe to eat: Cook it to 165 degrees.
While the government has always offered “doneness” advice, it has never before declared what it takes to kill viruses and bacteria that may lurk in poultry.
“It’s not in response directly to avian influenza, or bird flu, but so many people right now are concerned about bird flu and will poultry be safe to eat,” said Richard Raymond, the department’s undersecretary for food safety.
“It’s a wonderful time to educate everybody out there that there’s lots of reasons to handle poultry properly and cook it to the right temperature,” Raymond said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The government says the deadly strain of bird flu spreading throughout Asia, Africa and Europe is likely to arrive this year in the United States.
Human cases of bird flu have been rare, but authorities worry the virus could mutate into a form that would spread easily among people and cause a global epidemic.
165 degrees for all poultry
The cooking recommendation came from a scientific advisory panel that said raw poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.
The department’s “Is it Done Yet?” campaign provides a range of temperatures, including 170 degrees for chicken breasts and 180 degrees for whole birds.
Raymond said that’s too confusing and from now on, the department will be sticking with a minimum of 165 degrees for all poultry.
“That’s based on the best science available — 165 degrees is more than adequate to kill all food pathogens found in poultry, including avian influenza,” he said.
The department also strongly recommends that people use food thermometers and follow basic rules for kitchen safety: wash hands often, keep raw poultry and meat separate from cooked food and refrigerate or freeze food right away.
The primary target of the recommendation is not bird flu but salmonella, a bacteria that causes food poisoning and can be deadly unless infected people are treated promptly with antibiotics. Salmonella kills about 400 people each year in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The department asked the scientific panel for advice because of a salmonella outbreak last year in the Midwest. People got sick from stuffed and breaded frozen chicken entrees that looked fully cooked, but weren’t, the department said.
Officials have ordered about 80 companies to change package labels by next month to make the cooking instructions more clear.
It’s part of a broader effort to reduce the rate of salmonella contamination at poultry plants, which Raymond said has risen for the past four years.
The department is doing more tests at problem plants and, if problems continue, may release the names and testing rates of those plants, Raymond said.