October 7, 2008

Government Issues New Warning for Cooking Microwavable Meals

By Josh Funk

OMAHA, Neb. - Zapping frozen meals in the microwave may be fast and easy, but it also can make you sick if it's not done properly.

That message has been slow to catch on, despite a spate of illnesses last year from improperly microwaved frozen foods. On Sunday, the government issued a new warning urging consumers to thoroughly cook frozen chicken dinners after 32 people in 12 states were sickened with salmonella poisoning.

The problem is that microwaves heat unevenly, and can leave cold spots in the food that harbor dangerous bacteria, such as E. coli, salmonella or listeria. So microwaving anything that includes raw meat, whether it's frozen or thawed, can cause problems.

"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 wrongly assume all frozen meals are precooked and only need to be warmed. It's a misconception fostered in part by foods prepared to appear cooked, such as chicken that has been breaded or pre-browned.

U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety experts and major food companies offer several tips for preventing pockets of bacteria surviving and sickening people.

Know your microwave

Microwave cooking instructions are calibrated to cook food to a safe temperature based on particular wattages, or power. Food takes longer to cook safely in a microwave with lower wattage than one with higher wattage.

But checking your user manual for wattage ratings may not be enough. A microwave's actual output can differ from whatever figure the manufacturer states, and it can deteriorate over time.

To test your microwave, place several ice cubes in water and stir to make sure the water is ice cold and then remove any remaining ice and discard. Then measure 1 cup of ice water and set it in the microwave. Heat on high for 4 minutes, but watch to see when the water boils. If the water boils in less than 2 minutes, the oven has at least 1,000 watts.

If water boils in 2 1/2 minutes, the microwave produces about 800 watts. If water boils in 3 minutes or longer, it is a low-wattage oven producing about 700 watts or less.

Check the temperature

Food safety experts recommend that consumers use an instant-read food thermometer to check the final temperature of microwaved food. Be sure to check in several places to ensure there are no cold spots.

If the cooking instructions call for letting the food sit for a bit after cooking, wait until after this period before taking the temperature. This time is part of the cooking process and allows the heat to spread evenly through the food.

Foods that contain raw chicken must be heated to 165 F, according to federal guidelines.

Originally published by The Associated Press.

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