New Label Rules Did Little to Stem Salmonella Outbreaks from Raw Chicken EntreesApr 22, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
While federal food-safety officials consider if labels on some frozen chicken products adequately inform consumers that the chicken is raw, be warned that some stuffed chicken entrees made by Serenade are linked to salmonella outbreaks. The chicken entrees appear to be cooked because they have been breaded and pre-browned, but the meat is raw and, when not cooked thoroughly, is sickening consumers.
In addition to five salmonella outbreaks, 71 people have been sickened since 1998 according to Minnesota health officials who say that for every illness detected, more go unreported. The latest outbreak, in Minnesota last month, occurred despite even though the products' labels were updated over a year ago to more clearly state the chicken is uncooked. "We've done everything we think is appropriate, but if consumer behavior hasn't changed, we have to deal with that," said David Goldman, assistant administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The March outbreak was linked to chicken cordon bleu and chicken breast stuffed with cheese from Serenade Foods. In 2006, Serenade recalled 75,800 pounds of similar products after a salmonella outbreak. No recall was conducted following the March outbreak.
Salmonella is allowed in raw poultry because of the expectation that the bacteria will be killed during cooking. But, some food safety experts are saying that the recent outbreak shows that label changes weren't enough and that the products should be precooked or irradiated by the manufacturer prior to release so that bacteria is killed. "They look precooked, plus they are marketed as convenience foods," says Carlota Medus, epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health. Because the food is pre-browned—to better adhere the bread crumbs to the meat—consumers may wrongly believe the chicken is cooked and only needs reheating, which doesn't kill bacteria, she says.
Serenade and about 25 other companies changed labels following the 2006 recall and at the USDA’s request, Goldman says. Old labels had wording such as "ready to cook" or "not precooked." Serenade and other companies also dropped microwave instructions as these may lead consumers to think food only needs reheating.
This weekend, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that at least 23 people in 14 states have been sickened by the same strain of salmonella found in two breakfast cereals recalled by Malt-O-Meal late last week.
Salmonella can occur when food is improperly stored or handled and when preparers do not wash their hands or do not sanitize implements involved in meat storage. People infected with salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps within 12 to 72 hours of infection. Laboratory testing is required to determine the presence of Salmonella; additional testing can determine the specific type and which antibiotics are needed. Generally, the illness lasts a week and most people recover without treatment; however, in some, diarrhea may be so severe that hospitalization is required. In these cases, the infection may have spread from the intestines to the blood stream and other body sites. Severe cases can result in death if not treated.