The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a public health alert on Friday after 32 people in 12 different states appeared to have contracted Salmonellosis from eating raw chicken products such as chicken cordon bleu and chicken breast kiev they had cooked in a microwave.

The federal agency said that an epidemiological investigation by the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Agriculture found that the 32 illnesses in Minnesota and 11 other states were linked because the Salmonella in each case carried the same DNA fingerprint.

The Salmonella was linked to raw, frozen, breaded and pre-browned, stuffed chicken entrees consumed by the people who fell ill. The products included “chicken cordon bleu,” “chicken kiev” and chicken breast stuffed with cheese or vegetables.

FSIS reported that despite the fact the chicken products carried instructions that said they were uncooked and did not say they could be cooked in a microwave, the people who became ill appear not to have followed the instructions and cooked the products in the microwave as if they were a ready meal that only required reheating.

Perhaps in these cases, the consumers assumed that because the chicken products looked like ready meals (for instance some of them were stuffed, breaded and/or pre-browned), they did not need to be cooked in the same way as when you buy a whole raw chicken, in the conventional oven, which apparently is what the instructions on these packaged raw chicken meals specified.

In the alert, FSIS said they wished to remind consumers of the importance of using a food thermometer (costs about 18 dollars) to check the internal temperature of these chicken products “such that all points of measurement are at least 165 deg F”.

The agency said it was critically important that consumers follow “package cooking instructions for frozen, stuffed raw chicken products and general food safety guidelines when handling and preparing any raw meat or poultry”.

In theory there is no problem with cooking raw meat in a microwave, as long as you remember it is not the same as re-heating a cooked meal; you must make sure the meat reaches an internal temperature of at least 165 deg F (74 deg C) to kill any foodborne bacteria in the meat. And the only sure way to do that is to use a food thermometer.

Salmonellosis is one of the most common bacterial foodborne illnesses and is caused by eating food contaminated with the Salmonella bacterium. It can be life threatening to small babies, the elderly, people undergoing chemo, who are infected with HIV, or have a weak immune system for other reasons.

The symptoms usually appear within 72 hours and include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. Sometimes the infection is also accompanied by nausea, vomiting, headache and chills that can last up to a week.

To protect yourself from foodborne illness when handling raw meat or poultry, FSIS recommends you follow these guidelines:

  • Before and after handling raw meat and poultry, wash your hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds or more.
  • Wash cutting boards, utensils and dishes with hot water and soap.
  • Mop up spills straight away.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry and fish separate from other food that is not going to be cooked.
  • Use separate cutting boards for raw meat, poultry and egg products and cooked food.
  • Cook raw meat and poultry to safe internal temperatures before eating (safe internal temperature for beef and pork is 160 deg F, for poultry it is 165 deg F).
  • Use a food thermometer, it’s the only way to be sure the meat has reached the right temperature.
  • Keep raw meat and poultry in the refrigerator: don’t leave it outside for more than two hours (this is one hour if the temperature of the room is 90 deg F or more).
  • Put cooked meat and poultry in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking.

Source: USDA.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD.