Chicken from Farm to Table
What's for dinner tonight? There's a good chance it's chicken - now the number one species consumed by Americans. Interest in the safe handling and cooking of chicken is reflected in the thousands of calls to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. The following information answers many of the questions these callers have asked about chicken. To begin, let us define the types of chickens that you may find at your local grocery story:
- Broiler-fryer - a young, tender chicken; less than 10 weeks of age; weighs 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 pounds when eviscerated. Cook by any method.
- Rock Cornish Game Hen - a small broiler-fryer; weighs between 1 and 2 pounds. Usually stuffed and roasted whole.
- Roaster - a young chicken between 8 and 12 weeks of age with a ready-to-cook carcass weight of 5 pounds or more. It yields more meat per pound than a broiler-fryer. Usually roasted whole.
- Capon - male chickens; less than 4 months of age; surgically unsexed. They weigh about 4 to 7 pounds and have generous quantities of tender, light meat. Usually roasted.
- Stewing/Baking Hen - a mature laying hen; 10 months to 1 1/2 years old. Since the meat is less tender than young chickens, it's best when used in moist cooking, such as stewing.
- Cock or rooster - a mature male chicken with coarse skin and tough, dark meat. Requires long, moist cooking.
- Chicken Inspection
- Chicken Grading
- Fresh or Frozen
- Dating of Chicken Products
- Hormones & Antibiotics
- Foodborne Organisms Associated with Chicken
- Rinsing or Soaking Chicken
- Liquid in Package
- How to Handle Chicken Safely
- Safe Thawing
- Safe Cooking
- Stuffed Chicken
- Partial Cooking
- Color of Skin
- Dark Bones
- Pink Meat
- Storage Times
- Color of Giblets
All chickens found in retail stores are either inspected by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) or by State programs which have standards equivalent to the Federal government. Each chicken and its internal organs are inspected for signs of disease. The "Inspected for wholesomeness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture" seal indicates that the product was produced in compliance with Federal regulations, including those that prohibit carcasses and parts of carcasses with evidence of disease.
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Food safety inspection is mandatory, but quality grading is voluntary. Chickens are graded according to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service's quality regulations and standards. Grade A chickens have plump, meaty bodies and clean skin. They are also free of bruises, broken bones, feathers, cuts, and discoloration.
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Fresh or Frozen
The term fresh on a poultry label refers to any raw poultry product that has never been held below 26°F. Raw poultry held at 0°F or below must be labeled frozen or previously frozen. No specific labeling is required on raw poultry stored at temperatures between 0 and 25°F.
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Dating of Chicken Products
USDA requires a "pack date" or code date for poultry products and thermally processed, commercially sterile products, (commonly referred to as canned products were the containers can be flexible, such as pouches, or semi-rigid, as in lunch bowls) to help identify product lots and facilitate trace-back activities in the event of an outbreak of foodborne illness. For other poultry products under the jurisdiction of FSIS, dates may be voluntarily applied, provided they are labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and in compliance with FSIS regulations.
A calendar date must express both the month and day of the month. In the case of shelf-stable and frozen products, the year must also be displayed. Additionally, immediately adjacent to the date must be a phrase explaining the meaning of that date such as "Best if Used By."
The use-by date is for quality assurance; after the date, peak quality begins to lessen, but the product may still be used. It's always best to buy a product before the date expires. If a use-by date expires while the chicken is frozen, the food can still be used because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely. The quality of the poultry may diminish the longer it is frozen.
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Hormones & Antibiotics
No hormones are used in the raising of chickens. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the use of steroid hormone implants for growth purposes in poultry.
Antibiotics may be used to prevent disease and increase feed efficiency. Before the bird can be slaughtered, a "withdrawal" period is required from the time antibiotics are administered. FSIS randomly samples poultry at slaughter and tests for residues to make sure levels are not above the tolerance level at the time of slaughter. Data from this monitoring program have shown a very low percentage of residue violations.
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Additives are not allowed on fresh chicken. However, if chicken is processed, additives such as MSG, salt, or sodium erythorbate may be added but must be listed on the label.
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Foodborne Organisms Associated with Chicken
As with any perishable meat, fish, or poultry, bacteria can be found on raw or undercooked chicken. Bacteria multiplies rapidly at temperatures between 40 and 140°F—out of refrigeration and before thorough cooking occurs. Freezing doesn't kill bacteria, but they are destroyed by thorough cooking.
FSIS has a zero tolerance for certain pathogens, including Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes, in cooked and ready-to-eat products, such as chicken franks or lunch meat, which can be eaten without further cooking.
Most foodborne illness outbreaks are a result of contamination from food handlers. Sanitary food handling and proper cooking and refrigeration should prevent foodborne illnesses.
Bacteria must be ingested to cause foodborne illness. However, raw poultry must be handled carefully to prevent cross-contamination. This can occur if raw poultry or its juices come in contact with cooked food or foods that will be eaten raw, such as salad. An example of this is using a cutting board to chop raw chicken and then using the same board to chop tomatoes without washing the board first.
Bacteria associated with chicken areSalmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, and Escherichia coli (E. coli). For more information about bacteria and viruses that can cause illness associated with meat and poultry products, visit the Bacteria and Viruses’ webpage.
Safe food handling and proper cooking will help keep you and your family safe from bacteria.
Follow the four food safety steps of USDA's Food Safe Families campaign.
- Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often.
- Separate: Separate raw meats and poultry from other foods.
- Cook: Cook all poultry to 165°F.
- Chill: Refrigerate promptly.
Rinsing or Soaking Chicken
Washing raw poultry before cooking is not recommended because bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread to other foods, utensils, and surfaces. This is called cross-contamination. The results of a recent USDA observational study showed how easy bacteria can be spread when surfaces are not effectively cleaned and sanitized after washing poultry.
Rinsing or soaking chicken does not destroy bacteria. Only cooking will destroy any bacteria that might be present on fresh chicken.
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Liquid in Package
Many people think the pink liquid in packaged fresh chicken is blood; however, it is mostly water that was absorbed by the chicken during the chilling process. Blood is removed from poultry during slaughter and only a small amount remains in the muscle tissue. An improperly bled chicken has cherry red skin and is condemned by FSIS inspection personnel at the plant.
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How to Handle Chicken Safely
- Fresh Chicken: Chicken is kept cold during distribution to retail stores to prevent the growth of bacteria and to increase its shelf life. Chicken should feel cold to the touch when purchased. Select fresh chicken just before checking out at the register. Put packages of chicken in disposable plastic bags (if available) to contain any leakage that could cross-contaminate cooked foods or produce in the grocery cart or shopping bags. Make the grocery store your last stop before going home.
At home, immediately place chicken in a refrigerator that maintains a temperature of 40°F or below. Use it within 1 or 2 days, or freeze it at 0 °F. If kept frozen continuously, it will be safe indefinitely. The quality of the poultry may diminish the longer it is frozen.
Chicken may be frozen in its original packaging or repackaged. If you plan to freeze chicken longer than 2 months, overwrap the porous store plastic packages with airtight heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap, or freezer paper, or place the package inside a freezer bag. Use these materials or airtight freezer containers to freeze the chicken from opened packages or repackage family packs of chicken into smaller amounts.
Proper wrapping prevents "freezer burn," which appears as grayish-brown leathery spots and is caused by air reaching the surface of food. Cut freezer-burned portions away either before or after cooking the chicken. Heavily freezer-burned products may have to be discarded because they may be too dry or tasteless.
- Ready-Prepared Chicken: When purchasing fully cooked rotisserie or fast food chicken, be sure to eat or refrigerate it within 2 hours. If is hot at the time of purchase and won’t be used within 2 hours, cut it into several pieces and refrigerate in shallow, covered containers. Eat within 3 to 4 days, either cold or reheated to 165°F. It is safe to freeze ready-prepared chicken. For best quality, flavor, and texture, use it within 4 months.
FSIS recommends three ways to thaw chicken: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. Never thaw chicken on the counter or in other locations. It's best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Boneless chicken breasts, bone-in parts, and whole chickens may take 1 to 2 days or longer to thaw. Once the raw chicken thaws, it can be kept in the refrigerator an additional day or two before cooking. During this time, if chicken thawed in the refrigerator is not used, it can safely be refrozen without cooking it first.
Chicken may be thawed in cold water in its airtight packaging or in a leak-proof bag. Submerge the bird or cut-up parts in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes to be sure it stays cold. A whole (3- to 4-pound) broiler-fryer or package of parts should thaw in 2 to 3 hours. A 1-pound package of boneless breasts will thaw in an hour or less. Cook immediately after thawing.
Chicken that was thawed in the microwave should be cooked immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed. Foods defrosted in the microwave or by the cold-water method should be cooked before refreezing.
Do not cook frozen chicken in a slow cooker or in the microwave; thaw it before cooking. However, chicken can be cooked from the frozen state in the oven or on the stove. The cooking time may be about 50 percent longer. Be sure that the chicken is cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F as measured with a food thermometer.
FSIS recommends cooking whole chicken to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook poultry to higher temperatures.
For approximate cooking times to use in meal planning, see the following chart compiled from various resources.
Approximate Chicken Cooking Times
|Type of Chicken||Weight||Roasting 350 °F||Simmering||Grilling|
|Whole broiler-fryer*||3 to 4 lbs.||1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hrs.||60 to 75 min.||60 to 75 min.**|
|Whole roasting hen*||5 to 7 lbs.||2 to 2 1/4 hrs.||1 3/4 to 2 hrs.||18 to 25 min./lb.**|
|Whole capon*||4 to 8 lbs.||2 to 3 hrs.||Not suitable||15-20 min./lb.**|
|Whole Cornish hens*||18 to 24 oz.||50 to 60 min.||35 to 40 min.||45 to 55 min.**|
|Breast halves, bone-in||6 to 8 oz.||30 to 40 min.||35 to 45 min.||10 to 15 min./side|
|Breast halves, boneless||4 oz.||20 to 30 min.||25 to 30 min.||6 to 8 min./side|
|Legs or thighs||4 to 8 oz.||40 to 50 min.||40 to 50 min.||10 to 15 min./side|
|Drumsticks||4 oz.||35 to 45 min.||40 to 50 min.||8 to 12 min./side|
|Wings or wingettes||2 to 3 oz.||30 to 40 min.||35 to 45 min.||8 to 12 min./side|
* Unstuffed. If stuffed, add an additional 15 to 30 minutes.
** Indirect method using drip pan.
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- Microwave on medium-high (70 percent power): whole chicken, 9 to 10 minutes per pound; bone-in parts and Cornish hens, 8 to 9 minutes per pound; boneless breasts halves, 6 to 8 minutes per pound.
- Place whole chicken in an oven cooking bag or in a covered microwavable pot.
- Do not microwave a stuffed chicken. Food cooks quickly in a microwave oven and the stuffing might not have enough time to reach the safe minimum internal temperature needed to destroy harmful bacteria.
- When microwaving parts, arrange in a dish or on a rack so thick parts (of the chicken) are toward the outside of dish and thin or bony parts of the bird are in the center.
- For boneless breast halves, place in a dish with 1/4 cup water; cover with plastic wrap.
- Allow 10 minutes standing time for bone-in chicken; 5 minutes for a boneless breast.
- The USDA recommends cooking whole poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F as measured using a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. When cooking pieces, breasts, drumsticks, thighs, and wings should be cooked until they reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook poultry to higher temperatures.
The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline does not recommend buying a whole, uncooked chicken stuffed at the grocery store because of the highly perishable nature of a previously stuffed item. Consumers should not pre-stuff whole chicken to cook at a later time. Chicken can be stuffed immediately before cooking. Some USDA-inspected frozen stuffed whole poultry MUST be cooked from the frozen state to ensure a safely cooked product. Follow preparation directions on the label.
To stuff a whole chicken at home, cook any raw meat, poultry, or shellfish ingredients for the stuffing to reduce the risk of foodborne illness from bacteria that may be found in raw ingredients. The wet ingredients for stuffing can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated. However, do not mix wet and dry ingredients until just before spooning the stuffing mixture into the chicken cavity. Immediately cook the stuffed, raw chicken in an oven set no lower than 325°F.
Do not microwave a stuffed chicken. Food cooks quickly in a microwave oven and the stuffing might not have enough time to reach the safe minimum internal temperature needed to destroy harmful bacteria.
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Chicken may be marinated in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Bring marinade to full boil before brushing it on cooked chicken. Discard any uncooked leftover marinade.
Never brown or partially cook chicken to refrigerate and finish cooking later because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed. It is safe to partially precook or microwave chicken immediately before transferring it to the hot grill to finish cooking.
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Color of Skin
Chicken skin color varies from cream-colored to yellow. Skin color is a result of the type of feed eaten by the chicken, not a measure of nutritional value, flavor, tenderness, or fat content. Color preferences vary in different sections of the country, so growers use the type of feed that produces the desired colo.
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Darkening around bones occurs primarily in young broiler-fryers. Since their bones have not calcified completely, pigment from the bone marrow can seep through the porous bones. Freezing can also contribute to this seepage. When the chicken is cooked, the pigment turns dark. It's perfectly safe to eat chicken meat that turns dark during cooking.
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The color of cooked chicken is not a sign of its safety. Only by using a food thermometer can one accurately determine that chicken has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F throughout. The pink color in safely cooked chicken may be due to the hemoglobin in tissues, which can form a heat-stable color. Smoking or grilling may also cause this reaction, which occurs more in young birds.
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Product dates aren't a guide for the safe use of a product or how long the consumer can store the food and still use it at top quality. Instead, follow these tips:
- Purchase the product before the date expires.
- Follow handling recommendations on the product.
- Keep chicken in its package until it's ready to be used.
- Freeze chicken in its original packaging; overwrap or re-wrap it according to directions in the above section, "How to Handle Chicken Safely".
Home Storage of Chicken Products
|Product||Refrigerator 40 °F or below||Freezer 0 °F or below (Freezer storage is for quality only. Frozen foods remain safe indefinitely.)|
|Fresh Chicken, whole||1 to 2 days||1 year|
|Fresh Chicken, parts||1 to 2 days||9 months|
|Giblets or Ground Chicken||1 to 2 days||3 to 4 months|
|Cooked Chicken, Leftover||3 to 4 days||4 months|
|Chicken Broth or Gravy||3 to 4 days||2 to 3 months|
|Cooked Chicken Casseroles, Dishes or Soup||3 to 4 days||4 to 6 months|
|Cooked Chicken Pieces, covered with broth or gravy||3 to 4 days||6 months|
|Cooked Chicken Nuggets, Patties||3 to 4 days||1 to 3 months|
|Fried Chicken||3 to 4 days||4 months|
|Take-Out Convenience Chicken (Rotisserie, Fried, etc.)||3 to 4 days||4 months|
|Restaurant Chicken Leftovers, brought immediately home in a "Doggy Bag"||3 to 4 days||4 months|
|Store-cooked Chicken Dinner including gravy||3 to 4 days||2 to 3 months|
|Chicken Salad||3 to 5 days||Do not freeze if it contains mayonnaise|
|Deli-sliced Chicken Luncheon Meat||3 to 5 days||1 to 2 months|
|Chicken Luncheon Meat, sealed in package||2 weeks (but no longer than 1 week after a "sell-by" date)||1 to 2 months|
|Chicken Luncheon Meat, after opening||3 to 5 days||1 to 2 months|
|Vacuum-packed Dinners, Commercial brand with USDA seal||Unopened 2 weeks; Opened 3 to 4 days||1 to 2 months|
|Chicken Hotdogs, unopened||2 weeks (but no longer than 1 week after a "sell-by" date)||1 to 2 months|
|Chicken Hotdogs, after opening||1 week||1 to 2 months|
|Canned Chicken Products||2 to 5 years in pantry||Do not freeze in can.|
Color of Giblets
Giblet color can vary, especially in the liver, from mahogany to yellow. The type of feed, the chicken's metabolism, and its breed can account for the variation in color. If the liver is green, do not eat it. This is due to bile retention. However, the chicken’s meat should be safe to eat.
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