Minnesota Salmonella Cases Linked to Frozen Chicken Entrees

Two recent outbreaks of salmonellosis in Minnesota with a total of 29 cases have been linked to frozen, pre-browned, single-serving, microwaveable stuffed chicken entrees, state health and agriculture officials said today.

These are the third and fourth outbreaks of salmonellosis in Minnesota linked to these types of products since 1998. The findings prompted the officials to urge consumers to make sure that all raw poultry products are handled carefully and cooked thoroughly, and to strongly discourage the use of the microwave to cook raw chicken products.

Investigators from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) determined that 26 cases of Salmonella infection from August 2005 through June 2006, were due to the same strain of Salmonella Enteritidis. DNA fingerprinting is used in these investigations; the illness cases all had the same strain of Salmonella,and the same strain was found in product that customers still had in their freezers, said Dr. Kirk Smith, supervisor of the Foodborne Disease Unit at MDH.

In March 2006, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a limited recall in response to the identification of the outbreak. However, epidemiologists have found that new cases of illness continue to occur. Case findings indicate problems stemmed from products primarily produced by two different manufacturers, Aspen Foods of Chicago (USDA plant  P-1358) and Serenade Foods of Milford, Ind.  (USDA plant P-2375) and sold under a variety of brand names including store brand names.

In addition, since April 2006, we have seen three cases of Salmonella Typhimurium infection with the same DNA fingerprint, Smith said. This strain of Salmonella also has been found in products obtained from the homes of the illness cases.  The products eaten by these three individuals were produced by Aspen foods and sold under a store brand name. This outbreak prompted the USDA to issue a consumer advisory on July 3, 2006.

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. The problem arises when consumers dont realize that they are preparing a raw product, according to MDA dairy and food inspection director Kevin Elfering.

The frozen chicken entrees in these outbreaks are breaded, pre-browned and individually wrapped, so its likely most ill consumers mistakenly assumed they have been pre-cooked, Elfering 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.

Even though these products are labeled as microwaveable, both the MDA and the MDH strongly advise against cooking these products in the microwave. Microwaves vary in strength and tend to cook products unevenly; therefore, they are not appropriate for the primary preparation of raw meat and poultry. Additionally, the cooking instructions for many of these products may not be sufficient for killing Salmonella; therefore, consumers should ensure that they have fully cooked the products before eating them.

Other important food handling practices include washing your hands before and after handling raw meat, keeping raw and cooked foods separate to avoid cross-contamination, and placing cooked meat on a clean plate or platter before serving. Consumers can find more information about safe food-handling practices on the MDA Web site at http://www.mda.state.mn.us/foodsafe.htm.

Its important to note that because Salmonella is not considered an adulterant in raw poultry, no recall is required according to federal guidelines. Consumers with the products in their freezers, if they choose to use them, should cook them thoroughly, MDA and MDH officials advised.

Salmonellosis outbreaks due to this type of product keep occurring, despite public notifications, so it is time to take more stringent action, Elfering said. State officials have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider requiring individually wrapped, breaded, raw chicken products to include more prominent label information clearly stating they are raw products.

USDA is in the process of requiring all manufacturers to change the labels of these products to better inform consumers and requiring companies to validate cooking instructions. However the process of approving new labels takes time, and it appears that these products will still be allowed to be marketed as microwaveable. Therefore, MDH and MDA decided to issue this advisory in an attempt to try to prevent further illnesses, he said.

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 five to seven 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.

Approximately 575 to 700 cases of salmonellosis are reported each year in Minnesota.

Source: Minnesota Department of Health

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