The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released a report on a study where researchers looked at consumer food handling behaviors and the effectiveness of tips on preparing frozen foods at home.
According to the USDA, consumers may not be aware that frozen foods often are not fully cooked, and thus are not ready to eat. This can be especially true if the food shows signs that it may have been previously cooked, such as grill marks. Improper cooking of these foods can lead to foodborne illness, which can sometimes be severe or deadly.
In the study, researchers examined participants’ use of food thermometers to check the doneness of raw, frozen stuffed chicken breasts, and preparation of a salad made from not ready-to-eat (NTRE) frozen corn, canned black beans and fresh produce.
Almost half of the participants self-reported they do not use a food thermometer when cooking NRTE chicken products at home. Regarding the corn, 37 percent of participants relied on time as a measure of food readiness, and 31 percent relied on visual indicators to determine doneness. Only a small percentage used a food thermometer (1-3 percent).
Frozen foods can still pose a very high risk for foodborne illness if they are not handled properly. Food can become contaminated by pathogenic microorganisms during the growing, harvesting, processing or consumer handling stages, and freezing does not kill pathogens that may contaminate the food. Moreover, some pathogens, such as Listeria monocytogenes, can contaminate food processing plants, and this pathogen can grow at temperatures as low as 29.3 degrees F, which is well below the freezing range. Infection with Listeria monocytogenes is especially concerning since it has a 20-30 percent mortality rate.
Although most individuals experience mild illness when infected with Listeria monocytogenes, pregnant women and their newborns, adults aged 65 or older, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to suffer from severe complications, including death, from infection.
Although many people may realize that meat needs to be cooked thoroughly, less people are aware that processed frozen vegetables need to be cooked as well, especially due to the threat of Listeria. There are multiple recipes which may call for the addition of frozen vegetables to salads, but this practice is not safe. In 2016, the FDA investigated a multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections. The outbreak was determined to have been caused by Listeria contamination of organic and traditional frozen vegetable and fruit products produced by CRF. Frozen Foods. CRF initiated a recall of 350 consumer products sold under 42 separate brands due to contamination of their product, but unfortunately, this outbreak caused three deaths.
USDA has listed the following recommendations for preparing frozen meals and avoiding foodborne illness:
Follow proper handwashing steps before, during and after preparing frozen food to prevent germs from transferring from your hands to your meal. Be sure to wet, lather with soap and scrub for 20 seconds before rinsing and drying.
Although frozen products may appear to be pre-cooked or browned, they should be handled and prepared as raw products and must be cooked. Frozen products labeled with phrases such as “Cook and Serve,” “Ready to Cook” and “Oven Ready” indicate they must be cooked.
Always use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your frozen meat and poultry products to determine whether they are safe to eat.
Frozen produce may also carry pathogens that can cause foodborne illness. Always follow manufacturer’s instructions to check that the food has reached a safe internal temperature of 165 F.
Frozen produce must be cooked first before using in dishes such as salads. Keep up to date on recalls and ensure frozen food in your freezer is not on a recall list. You can find information about recalled items on USDA and FDA websites.