How to Cook Chicken That Won’t Make Your Kids Sick

Everything you wanted to know about superbugs on your dinner, according to a dad and scientist.

by Benjamin J. Koch
Originally Published: 

You know the drill. It’s 6pm. With heavy feet, an aching head, and rapidly dwindling mental capacity sapped by a full day, you stumble through the front door with a hungry kid in tow. Another day nearly done, and all you want right now is a few quiet moments on the couch.

But it’s dinnertime. Past dinnertime, in fact. And you are a responsible parent, dammit! So get it in gear! No frozen pizza tonight. No sir. We need fresh vegetables and protein. We need to model some healthy eating habits for this child.

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Remember the good old days? Pre-parenthood cooking was such a breeze! What did I even eat for protein back then? Ramen? Dirt? It seemed so simple. But for whatever reason, having a kid forced my wife and me to actually grow up and try to cook some real meals. You know, with meat.

It’s now 6:20 and Rachel, my 7-year-old, has wrapped herself around my legs—a sure sign that she needs food pronto. And my wife will be home in 45 minutes, hopeful that I have come through with dinner.

I quickly fix Rachel a snack and put her at the table with her spelling homework. After several aimless minutes wandering the kitchen, I’ve finally concocted a plan: chicken fajitas. Tasty, healthy. What could go wrong?

Drug-resistant E. coli, that’s what.

I’m a biologist, and about the same time I became a parent, I began studying antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Due to widespread misuse of antibiotics – both on farms and in hospitals – these drug-resistant little beasties are not only becoming more common, but also deadlier. And they are crazy-good at getting into our food. Nearly nine out of ten packages of retail meat have at least one kind of resistant bacteria living inside.

With such high stakes, it takes me a few minutes to get my mind in the meat handling “zone.” I try to think like a ferocious little bacterium hell-bent on my annihilation. I prepare the surroundings, which essentially involves converting the kitchen into a Biosafety Level 2 pathogen containment facility.

How did cooking chicken become so perilous? Through my work I was learning that antibiotic-resistant infections are on the rise and that some – perhaps most – of these may be caused by drug-resistant bacteria that live in the animals we eat. More than three-quarters of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are destined for use in animals, not people. The way in which those drugs are used to grow livestock and poultry creates the perfect conditions for drug-resistant microbes to flourish, and when they make their way into our bodies – by improper cooking or handling of meat – they can put a smackdown on our asses, undeterred by medically important antibiotics.

I open the fridge and fruitlessly try using the “force” to levitate the meat out of the fridge and into the pan. How can I get this chicken out of its nasty little package without touching anything?

Predictably, as soon as I touch raw meat, everything goes to hell.

The phone rings – ignore it. There is no way to safely answer with my slimy raw chicken hands.

The ringing continues, and I’m halfway into the package when Rachel runs over, urgently needing help spelling D-A-N-G-E-R-O-U-S. “Can’t you see that I’ve got deadly E. coli juice dripping all over the place?” I think…but fortunately not out loud.

By the time I get the chicken into the pan, the doorbell rings. I answer with a half-full package of raw meat in one hand and explain to the middle-schooler selling cookies that he’ll need to come back later.

Wearily, I put the rest of the meat in the pan and survey the invisible microbial carnage around me. Time to decontaminate.

Once I’ve convinced myself that our countertops and sink no longer harbor deadly drug-resistant germs, I am exhausted. The chicken comes out overcooked (as usual), and eating our fajitas is like chewing tree bark. Have I failed as a parent? Maybe I should’ve just done frozen pizza.

But if I’m honest, I love the challenge of striving to be a decent parent. It might stress the crap out of me at times, but feeding my family healthy food feels right. Just like my research at work feels right, where I am striving to find new ways of reducing the threat of serious infection in a world where antibiotics are increasingly ineffective.

7 Ways to Keep Your Meat Safe

  • Buy meat that comes from animals raised without antibiotics. See this website for information that will help inform your purchases.
  • Don’t rinse meat before cooking it; this just spreads bacteria.
  • Defrost meat in the fridge, not on the counter.
  • After handling raw meat, clean all surfaces thoroughly.
  • Cook meat thoroughly (the USDA recommends cooking poultry to an internal temperature of 165ºF).
  • Be a vegetarian (seriously).
  • Support policies to reduce the misuse of antibiotics in livestock. George Washington University’s Antibiotic Resistance Action Center is an excellent resource for staying informed on these issues.

Benjamin J. Koch is a father and researcher living in Flagstaff, Arizona. Learn more about his work on antibiotic-resistance bacteria here and visit him on Twitter @benkoch3000. This work was prepared with support from the STEM Ambassador Program, a public engagement project funded by the National Science Foundation.

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