More Salmonella cases tied to frozen chicken entrees

Jul 21, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – In the wake of two outbreaks of Salmonella infection involving 29 cases, Minnesota health officials are warning the public to be careful when cooking frozen, pre-browned chicken entrees.

The outbreaks prompted state health and agriculture officials yesterday to "strongly advise" people not to cook stuffed chicken entrees in microwave ovens because of the risk of uneven and incomplete cooking.

"The frozen chicken entrees in these outbreaks are breaded, pre-browned and individually wrapped, so it's likely most ill consumers mistakenly assumed they have been precooked," said Kevin Elfering, dairy and food inspection director in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), in a news release. He said people probably overlooked label instructions to fully cook the raw entrees and just heated them in a microwave.

Investigators determined that 26 illness cases from August 2005 through June 2006 were caused by the same strain of Salmonella enterica serotype Enteritidis, according to the release. The same strain was found in product that people still had in their freezers, said Dr. Kirk Smith, supervisor of the Foodborne Disease Unit in the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a limited recall in March in response to this outbreak, but cases have continued, the MDH said. The products mostly come from two manufacturers, Aspen Foods in Chicago (USDA plant P-1358) and Serenade Foods, Milford, Ind. (USDA plant P-2375). They are sold under various brand names, including store names.

The other three illness cases were S Typhimurium infections with a DNA fingerprint that matched that of product in patients' homes, Smith said. These cases prompted the USDA to issue a consumer advisory on Jul 3 (see link below). The products were produced by Aspen Foods and sold under a store brand name.

In the Jul 3 advisory, the USDA said at least 34 recent salmonellosis cases across the nation have been linked to undercooked chicken entrees, in addition to the Minnesota cases.

Salmonella is sometimes found in raw chicken and is not considered an adulterant, making thorough cooking imperative, MDH and USDA officials said. For safety, raw poultry products must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165ºF.

Although the kinds of products tied to these outbreaks are labeled as microwaveable, Minnesota officials warned not to cook them that way. "Microwaves vary in strength and tend to cook products unevenly; therefore, they are not appropriate for the primary preparation of raw meat and poultry," the news release states.

The USDA said that if one cooks the products in a microwave oven, one should use a food thermometer to check the temperature at multiple points inside the product and should wait a while after cooking to allow the heat to spread evenly throughout it. The agency said it is requiring new labels clearly stating that frozen chicken entrees contain raw chicken and must be fully cooked to 165ºF.

Minnesota officials said they decided to warn the public of the risk because the labeling change will take time and because the products probably will still be marketed as "microwaveable."

Salmonellosis symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramps, and fever. They usually begin within 12 to 72 hours of exposure and subside within 5 to 7 days, but about 20% of cases require hospitalization, the MDH said.

See also:

Jul 3 FSIS news release (updated Jul 11)

Apr 22, 2005, CIDRAP News story "Salmonella cases linked to frozen chicken entrees"

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