andrew schneider investigates

May 16, 2009

Kill step and an adequate lethality. We can’t be talking about food.

salmonella   Photo CDC

Why would words like “kill step” and “adequate lethality” be in the lexicon of the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and major manufacturers of heat-to-eat food?

After putting aside all the complex government and scientific explanations, these war-like sounding phrases are steps that food producers hope and expect consumers will take to keep from being poisoned by salmonella.

I began chasing this issue a bit last year and when I spoke to food scientists at USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service. They told me that adequate lethality is a kill step, the point where the precise combination of temperature and cooking time will kill biological hazards in food.

They said that far too many consumers wrongly believe that when they pull a frozen meal from the freezer in the grocery it has already been treated to eliminate contamination to salmonella and other bacteria that can cause painful illness and sometimes death.

What most consumers don’t understand is that food packagers, especially those who manufacture frozen food, expect the consumer to take the kill step. The problem is that most shoppers have no clue that this safety burden has been dumped in their pot.

The Association of Food, Beverage and Consumer Products Companies issued guidelines last year for their food production members to pay special attention to instructions given to consumers when it came to foods “not-ready-to-eat.”

They documented that many consumers believe that food is heated for palatability or taste, but is not required for food safety. Because of this belief, people can and do become ill.

The association urged its members to develop instructions for preparing their frozen products that make it clear that the “food must be cooked at a time/temperature combination sufficient to reduce the number of pathogens that might be present . . . to a safe level.”

The key here is not heating, but cooking to the point required to “kill pathogenic microorganisms that may be present in many frozen entrees,” the guidelines cautioned.

A decade or more ago many food processors began labeling their products with phrases such as “Oven Ready,” “Cook and Serve,” and “Ready to Cook,” assuming that consumers would understand that cooking was necessary for safety, not just taste.

The FSIS safety specialists told me that among their greatest were frozen food that is microwaved since uneven heating of foods in microwave ovens has been implicated as a key factor in improperly cooked food products. This non-uniform heating leads to cold spots in the product, which may allow the survival of pathogens such as salmonella.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a national food safety advocacy group, explained that its researchers found that the most dangerous products to be cooked in a microwave are frozen uncooked, breaded chicken and turkey products, some breaded fish and frozen meat and poultry pot pies.

If you want more information on this battle of the bacteria, I urge you to read a fine, comprehensive piece of journalism by New York Times’ writer Michael Moss in Friday’s edition. It may shock you into cooking your foods long enough to make them safe to eat.

Here is a link to it.

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1 Comment »

  1. I still prefer preparing my own food from fresh ingredients.

    Comment by Katherine Wilkerson — May 18, 2009 @ 02:08 | Reply


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