Concentrated plasma beams can effectively kill pathogens on raw chicken, according to a proof-of-concept study published in the January Journal of Food Protection by food safety researchers at Drexel University.

In the study, plasma eliminated all or nearly all bacteria from raw chicken — both skinless and with skin — when the bacteria were present in low concentrations. On chicken with high concentrations of bacteria, plasma treatment resulted in “significant” reductions.

Although heating chicken to safe temperatures kills all present bacteria, improperly handling raw meat can lead to infection from cross-contamination. According to the Drexel University press release, Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria are found on the surface of nearly 70 percent of raw chicken samples that gets tested.

If implemented in a commercial setting, the plasma treatment would help safeguard against illnesses from cross-contamination or insufficient cooking by removing pathogens before they reach the market. The treatment works at room temperature. It does not cook the meat or alter its appearance.

The study also found that plasma killed antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria just as effectively as its non-resistant counterparts. And in addition to removing pathogens from meat, plasma treatment killed large amounts of bacteria responsible for spoilage, thus potentially improving the meat’s shelf life.

But until the cost of plasma treatment is lowered, the process remains commercially impractical. It is not currently being implemented by any chicken processors. The authors urge consumers to continue to cook meat thoroughly and handle raw meat carefully to avoid cross-contamination.

Read the study’s abstract here.