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A quick way to get sick: Undercooked microwaved meals

Consumer Reports News: June 13, 2008 03:18 PM

We've been writing a lot lately about the ongoing outbreak of Salmonella linked to tomatoes. But while we're on the topic of food safety, we'd like to remind you of another possible hazard: undercooked microwaved meals. The microwave has certainly been a success at shortening the time it takes to get a meal from the oven to the table. Yet recent reports on food poisoning outbreaks show that consumers should take the same care when preparing to microwave a meal as they would when cooking in a conventional oven.

Prepackaged microwaveable meals, chicken pot pies and pre-browned or breaded chicken products have been linked to Salmonella and Listeria, two potentially deadly forms of bacteria, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over the past decade,  health officials in Minnesota have linked five salmonella outbreaks to microwavable foods in that state alone. Nationwide, 65 people were hospitalized and more than 200 were sickened across 35 states in 2007. The CDC pegged that outbreak to frozen Banquet brand meat and poultry pot pies and several other brands produced by ConAgra that were recalled.   

Even though they can appear to be pre-cooked, many chicken and meat dishes are  actually made with raw or partially cooked ingredients, and must be cooked thoroughly

Thorough cooking in the microwave is especially important because, contrary to popular belief, microwaves don't cook food from the inside out. The microwaves only penetrate food to a depth of about 1 to 1-1/2 inches. At the center, thicker foods cook by conduction, as the heat moves from the outside in. To ensure the food is cooked thoroughly inside without overcooking the outside layers, you need to cook them longer at lower power.  Some convection microwave ovens may also lead consumers to under cook chicken. In a recent Consumer Reports test of one microwave oven run in a combined microwave-convection mode, the "speed cook" setting designed for whole chicken didn't heat the interior of the bird to a temperature that would be high enough to kill bacteria.

The numerous illnesses attributed to pre-packaged meals prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2006 to strengthen its labeling requirements for prepared meat products and require testing to verify that cooking instructions ensure foods will reach bacteria-killing temperatures.  Despite these measures, Salmonella is still a problem in prepackaged microwaveable meals.

This Spring, Minnesota officials reported two serious cases of Salmonella linked to microwaveable stuffed chicken products, leading the USDA to issue a public health alert. The products, produced by Serenade Foods, include "Chicken Breast with Rib Meat Chicken Cordon Bleu" and "Chicken Breast with Rib Meat Buffalo Style" sold under the brand names "Milford Valley Farms," "Dutch Farms" and "Kirkwood."  Koch Foods, an Ohio firm, recalled similar products because they didn't comply with the new labeling requirements.

Why is raw chicken such a concern? In our tests for bacteria in fresh chicken published in 2007, we found that 83 percent of the birds harbored campylobactor or Salmonella, a stunning increase from 2003, when 49 percent of the birds tested harbored one or both pathogens.

To protect yourself, don't guess. Use a thermometer to make sure any chicken you eat is thoroughly cooked to an interior temperature of 165 degrees, no matter how it's prepared.  Consult the USDA's tips on microwaves and food safety.


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