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The USDA has announced that 32 people in 12 states were sickened with salmonella poisoning after eating precooked, frozen chicken dinners. The problem? Many of the people who got sick apparently did not follow the instructions for preparing the meal, which called for heating it in an oven. Those who got sick apparently cooked their meals in microwaves instead.

Because of the way that the foods are packaged and labeled, people think that the ingredients are cooked and it just needs to be heated up. Pictures on the face of many packages give the impression that the product inside is a fully cooked product. However, if one reads the label carefully, the product either needs to be cooked in a conventional oven or thoroughly cooked in a microwave oven to a specific temperature. Many consumers, however, still use microwave ovens for these types of products, out of habit.

Carlota Medus, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, told the New York Times last year: “Microwave cooking for something that has to be cooked isn’t always a good idea.”

Dr. Heidi Kassenborg, the Food Inspection Director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture echoes that sentiment but says that the problem often arises when consumers don’t realize that they are preparing a raw product.

“The frozen chicken entrees in the outbreaks we’ve seen in Minnesota are breaded, pre-browned and individually wrapped, so it’s likely most ill consumers mistakenly assumed they have been precooked,” Kassenborg said. “Although the wrapper includes instructions to fully cook the product, some consumers might have overlooked that information and simply heated it in a microwave.”

Salmonella is sometimes present in raw chicken, which is why it is important for consumers to follow safe food-handling practices. This includes cooking all raw poultry products to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Symptoms of salmonellosis include diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramps and fever. Symptoms usually begin within 12 to 72 hours after exposure, but can begin up to a week after exposure. Salmonella infections usually resolve in 5-7 days, but approximately 20 percent of cases require hospitalization. In rare cases, Salmonella infection can lead to death, particularly in the elderly or those with weakened immune systems.

For more information about food safety litigation, contact the Smith & Vanture firm.

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