October 15, 2008

New Warning Over Microwaving Raw Frozen Chicken Entrees

By Elizabeth Weise

The U.S. Department of Agriculture once again is warning consumers to read the label when cooking frozen chicken entrees amid thefourth salmonella outbreak in three years linked to raw frozen entrees.

There have been 34 cases this year of salmonella food poisoning in at least 12 states from eating undercooked chicken .

In each case, consumers thought breaded or pre-browned frozen chicken entrees were cooked, but they were raw.

In March, the USDA issued a public health alert to remind consumers that the "instructions on the package need to be followed for safety," spokeswoman Laura Reiser says.

The agency didn't name a particular manufacturer but did say the entrees were sold as chicken Kiev, chicken cordon bleu or stuffed chicken breasts.

The products were not meant to be microwaved, they didn't include microwave instructions, and the labels said the chicken was raw.

But because the entrees were breaded or pre-browned, some consumers thought they also were precooked and simply warmed them in the microwave. Microwaving did not get them hot enough to kill salmonella bacteria in the raw chicken.

Salmonella commonly is found in raw or undercooked chicken and can cause mild to severe food poisoning.

Minnesota has tracked six salmonella outbreaks in similar products since 1998.

Food manufacturers have modified labels on such chicken products several times over the past year. Older labels used phrases such as "ready to cook" or "not precooked."

But Kirk Smith, head of the food-borne disease unit of the Minnesota Department of Health, says people are microwaving the products without focusing on the label stating the entree is raw, and despite the lack of microwave instructions.

"We wish the labels would be even more emphatic," he says.

He acknowledges that consumers who tend to eat these foods -- "lots of kids and teens and young adults who want something fast" -- may not be paying attention. "Maybe if on the front of the package there were 3-inch letters -- RAW -- who knows?"

The problem is that all microwaves heat frozen foods unevenly. "It might get 40 degrees hotter than it needs to be, and then 2 inches away it doesn't get hot enough," Smith says.

Minnesota health officials met with producers of chicken products and were told that precooking wasn't an option because it has an effect on the texture and appearance of the chicken.

"They've tried it, and it just doesn't sell," Smith says.

He says the best solution would be "electronic pasteurization," also known as irradiation, which would kill the salmonella but leave the chicken raw. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>