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Microwaves Not Meant For Cooking Raw Foods

October 7, 2008

Using the microwave to heat up your food is a great, simple way to enjoy a meal, but if not done properly, it can make you sick.

This is a problem that is not receiving much notice, even though there were numerous illnesses last year caused from improperly microwaved frozen foods.

“Given how people use microwaves, it’s great for reheating, but maybe not so good for cooking,” said Doug Powell, scientific director of the International Food Safety Network.

The government issued a word of warning on Sunday advising consumers to meticulously cook frozen chicken dinners after 32 people were struck with salmonella poisoning.

The issue is that microwaves heat unequally and can leave cold spots in the food that can foster bacteria, like E. coli, salmonella or listeria.
Consequently, microwaving anything that includes raw meat, whether it’s frozen or thawed, can be unwise.

“I think most food-safety experts probably would have said it’s not a good idea to microwave anything that’s from a raw state,” said Michael Davidson, a University of Tennessee food microbiologist.

Many people incorrectly assume all frozen meals are precooked and simply need to be re-heated. It’s a fallacy supported by foods that are made to appear prepared, such as chicken that has been breaded or pre-browned.

“I haven’t worried about the safety of frozen food. Maybe I should,” consumer Kathy Tewhill told the ASsociated Press in an interview.

In truth, there are several meals intended to be microwaved that can still be dangerous if they are not heated thoroughly enough, or are prepared using directions that are meant for a microwave with different voltage.

The government does not track microwave-related food-borne illnesses, but annually more than 325,000 people are hospitalized for food-related sicknesses.

Last fall, hundreds became unwell when Banquet brand pot pies produced by ConAgra Foods were connected to a salmonella outbreak, and frozen pizzas prepared by General Mills were tied to an E. coli outbreak. Both products were eventually recalled.

Since the outbreaks, food companies have renovated the cooking instructions on their frozen foods to guarantee they are satisfactory enough for destroying any dangerous bacteria, stated Leslie Sarasin, head of the American Frozen Food Institute trade group.

ConAgra and Nestle Prepared Foods, two of the biggest frozen foods producers, have introduced the modified instructions on several of their brands, including Stouffer’s, Lean Cuisine, Banquet and Healthy Choice.

However, preparing frozen foods securely could involve a change in consumers’ personal microwave habits. In the midst of the latest outbreak of illness, some of the meals were only microwaved even though the merchandise clearly wasn’t meant to be.

Microwaves generate short radio waves that infiltrate food about 1 inch and excite water, fat and sugar molecules to create heat. Food safety experts note that the heating method used causes more of a threat than a stove or oven because microwaves heats food unevenly.

To be completely secure, they advise getting a food thermometer and using it to confirm the temperature of microwaved food in several places, principally if the product has raw ingredients.

“If you were going to make one of these things for a kid, you’d definitely want to be checking the temperatures on the things or using your (conventional) oven,” Davidson said.

Nevertheless, finding the raw ingredients isn’t always straightforward, because the only hint most companies give is the two words “COOK THOROUGHLY” on the front of the package.

Consumers also should to become more familiar with the technical terms of their microwaves. The unit’s wattage influences how powerful it is and how well it heats food.

Microwaves do lose power over time, and a number of smaller microwaves do not generate enough power to carefully cook some products.

Kathy Barges, another consumer, states that she attempts to follow the instructions on her Lean Cuisine meals closely, but did not notice the package’s advice to correct cooking time if she doesn’t have a 1,100-watt microwave.

“I’m not sure what mine is,” Barges said. “It’s an expensive microwave, so I assume it’s got the most wattage on it.”

College student Jordan Sullivan stated he frequently eats frozen pizza and pizza rolls, but has not given much consideration to the safety of the cooking process.

“I just toss them in and wait till they look good,” Sullivan said of the rolls.

While following directions is ideal, experts say plainly that cooking raw food should be left to stovetops, grills and ovens.

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