Salmonella from frozen dinners!

It’s been a while since I have reviewed the various risks associated with eating, but I came across this Salmonella menace a few weeks ago. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a case study describing a multistate outbreak of Salmonella enterica serotype Chester due to frozen meals. In November the CDC reported that 44 people became ill in 18 states during the late spring of 2010. Molecular analysis of patient isolates indicated sole source contamination and questionnaires completed by the patients suggested that “brand A cheesy chicken and rice frozen meals” were responsible. Of the 43 patients who were followed up, 16 of them required hospitalization however no deaths were reported. On the strength of the epidemiological analysis, the company recalled the product from the shelves and the outbreak strain was identified in 8 unopened containers. Investigation into the source during the manufacturing process did not turn up any production deficiencies or a conclusive common contaminated ingredient supplier.  The best guess was that a single poultry supplier was the source in the outbreak. What made this case novel was that this episode represents the first time that Salmonella enterica serotype Chester had been reported in a widespread foodborne disease outbreak.

Editorial notes by the CDC point out that there is little in the way of negligence in either the supplier or production procedures used to bring this product to market. Simple Google image searching showed that the dinner in the above graphic was the one recalled in this outbreak. The label clearly says “Keep Frozen–Must be cooked thoroughly” and is considered a “not ready to eat” meal, as opposed to the hugely convenient “heat and serve” meal. Organisms such as Salmonella enterica and Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli are not effectively killed by incompletely reheating in the microwave, and require actual cooking in order to render them inert. The instruction to “allow dinner to sit in the microwave for 1 minute” is also a critical part of the cooking process, and is frequently ignored by consumers. The CDC notes that this outbreak highlights the need to educate the public on safe food handling procedures, and the need to follow the instructions prior to eating these products. Consumers also, if using a microwave oven to cook these products, need to know the specifications of their appliances and to ensure that their microwave ovens are able to be safely used to cook these.

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About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on January 31, 2014, in Some like it hot, You are what you eat. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. That is a little scary and unexpected. About three to four times a week I cook micro wave or TV dinner, such as broccoli and cheese, brown rice and beans etc. simply because its quick and less time consuming. Someday juggling between work, family and school is just not enough time to cook home meal. One take home message that I have learn from the above posting is to cook the food properly and allow one minute to stay in the micro wave which I never did. I guess sometimes we ignored these simple instructions on these label and ingest these micro organisms and then blame the industries. Though its seems that the poultry supplier was their best conclusive guess for the out brake. I always think that those prepack dinner are precooked, and I am sure there are people out there that do the same thing too. Its amazing when we think we know something and later we find out that either we don’t have a clue or we are doing the wrong thing.

  2. sherrell carter

    This article reminds me of the saying you are what you eat , but it concerns me when your foods can cause harm to your health .The FDA needs to make more strict guidelines in the way in which poultry is packaged and prepared to prevent a this small epidemic by testing the foods for potential pathogens and or include its potential harm on the food label . The suppliers as will need to be more hygienic in the preparation of these frozen meals hence separating the meats from in the veggies to prevent possible contamination .

    • To the defense of the frozen dinner industry, the instructions on the package do pretty clearly state how to prepare the food safely. The consumers in the case study apparently were ignoring those instructions.

  3. It is concerning the amount of diseases you could contract just by eating. In this case, the consumers weren’t reading the instructions, which I am careful to follow, but there are other cases where you are following the instructions and can still contract an infection of some type. I do wonder if the company faced any type of penalty for releasing a food that contained a pathogen, (even if they weren’t following the instructions) such as a fine? I’ve heard before (maybe on the Dr. Oz show?) that manufacturers are allowed a certain amount of bugs in their food and it can still be considered “safe” to eat by consumers. Could these bugs also cause a disease by acting as a vector? It’s unsettling to think about all of the things you could be eating when you’re trying to eat a quick meal! I’m thinking maybe manufacturers should be testing their products for contamination if they aren’t already?

    • I personally think that a bit of common sense is important, but I don’t think that I would be a particularly litigious person if I happened to get sick in a manner like this–I would much more likely assume it was my own damn fault! However, I recognize that not all people are as level and clear headed as myself, and furthermore the manufacturers must assume that someone will get sick/hurt and sue. Consquently, we end up with pretty comprehensive sets of instructions on the packaging.

      I think from a manufacturing standpoint it is extremely unrealistic to try to achieve “sterility” or absence of ALL microbial life with convenience foods like this. The process will produce an inferior food product, and I don’t think it would be cost effective.

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