Last week, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDOH) issued a wake-up call to poultry processors — at least in spirit — when it announced that twenty-nine people, including many kids, recently contracted Salmonella from frozen, pre-browned, microwaveable chicken entrees.
This is not the first Salmonella outbreak associated with such frozen chicken entrees. The MDOH alone has investigated four of them since 1998; and several other states and Canada have recently seen recalls of Salmonella-contaminated frozen chicken nuggets and strips (my kids’ favorite). It is high-time for the poultry companies that process these chickens clean up their act . . . literally.
Most people don’t know this, but Salmonella bacteria don’t exist inside the chicken meat that we eat. Salmonella bacteria exist in a chicken’s gastrointestinal tract. Thus, when the chicken meat becomes contaminated with Salmonella, the contamination occurred because the meat was allowed to contact chicken feces. Yes, chicken poop.
Knowing this admittedly unappetizing fact makes the issue a little more clear. True, as MDOH’s announcement was careful to point out, proper cooking kills Salmonella bacteria; but as an attorney who has represented hundreds of people who thought that they were eating “properly cooked” chicken, I say from experience that the ideal of cooking every bit of chicken to an appropriate temperature is just that, an ideal, particularly since much of the chicken that we consume comes from restaurants and other outlets where we, the consumer, have no control over the cooking process. This is especially true with “frozen, pre-browned, microwaveable chicken entrees” – product people may think is already or partially cooked. Although I support the notion of thorough cooking, more attention must be paid to the manner in which our food is handled by the companies that process it. That, after all, is the point at which contamination occurs.
The recent outbreak provides even more justification for putting the onus on the poultry processors, not the ultimate consumer of the chicken, to rid the meat of harmful bacteria. Kevin Elfering, Director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Dairy and Food Inspection, recently stated that “The frozen chicken entrees in these outbreaks are breaded, pre-browned and individually wrapped, so it’s likely most ill consumers mistakenly assumed they have been precooked.” Elfering did note that the wrapper includes instructions to fully cook the product, but that the sick individuals had likely overlooked the instructions.
For its part, the USDA recently instructed food producers to make labels clearer by this coming November. Again I support the notion, but I think it misses the point. Not only is this action too late for the twenty-nine people sickened in the recent outbreak, it avoids placing the onus on the companies that process our food. Is it possible to keep feces and food separate? We do it at home, and I would venture that the people who work at food processing companies have clean homes too. We need to transfer that ethic to the companies where they work.
With multiple outbreaks occurring in the last several years, it seems to me that MDOH and USDA are right to increase consumer awareness about the need to cook these products. But processing companies need to recognize that they are part of the solution, and their unique position in the chain linking chicken farms to consumer’s tables gives them the power to respond. Producers should have one simple goal – prevent illnesses.