Hot on the heels of three active Salmonella outbreak investigations across the country, new regulations for frozen raw breaded chicken products that are packaged for retail sale have come into effect.
The new requirements, proposed in July of last year, were prompted by ongoing links between frozen raw breaded chicken products and outbreaks of food-borne illness, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Food producers/manufacturers are now required to implement measures at the manufacturing or processing level to reduce Salmonella bacteria to "below detectable levels".
In order to achieve this, food manufacturers/producers may add preservatives approved by Health Canada to reduce the risk of Salmonella infection, and must implement one of four control options involving better labelling, sampling and testing. Many in the industry predict that manufacturers/producers will simply start cooking the meat first to destroy Salmonella bacteria.
In May 2017, the Government of Canada began using "whole genome sequencing" — a new technology that allows scientists to determine the complete DNA sequence of an organism's genome — to help identify and respond to food-borne illness outbreaks. Since then, government health and food safety partners have investigated 17 national outbreaks linked to raw chicken products.
In total, there have been 14 food products linked to these outbreak investigations and the CFIA has issued food recall warnings for 13 products. As of March 22, 2019, there have been 566 laboratory-confirmed cases of Salmonella infection investigated as part of these outbreaks across the country.
What is causing the outbreaks?
Salmonella bacteria is commonly found in the environment where chickens are born, raised, fed, housed and processed and contamination can occur at any step of the chicken-harvesting process. The bacteria replicates quickly, can survive on practically any surface and can be spread through water, animal and/or human contact.
Salmonella bacteria is also transferred through contaminated chicken feed. Chicken feed is largely comprised of grains and other plants (e.g. corn, peas, alfalfa), which can become contaminated by the animal manure that is used as fertilizer. The process by which these plants are processed into chicken feed does not kill Salmonella bacteria, so chickens become contaminated with the bacteria when they eat the feed.
"It's almost impossible to hold anybody fully accountable for Salmonella being in the system," says Lyzette Lamondin, an executive with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), in a recent interview. "It's so widespread, and so part of the environment, it's almost impossible to figure out exactly how to get rid of Salmonella from the food system.”
But there is another reason why hundreds of Canadians are still getting sick from breaded chicken contaminated with Salmonella bacteria, despite all the recalls and labelling on packaging — and that is the consumers themselves.
Salmonella bacteria breaks down if chicken is cooked to an internal temperature of at least 74°C (165°F). Despite warnings on frozen raw breaded chicken packaging, many people don't cook the product thoroughly enough to kill the bacteria.
For whatever reason — perhaps because we assume that all breaded chicken products are pre-cooked, or perhaps because they appear to be pre- or partially-cooked — Canadians simply don't handle these products with the same caution as other raw chicken products.
In a recent interview with CBC, Dr. Howard Njoo, Deputy Chief Public Health Officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada, suggests that consumers treat all chicken products as if they are contaminated. “Handle it carefully and cook it carefully all the way through,” says Njoo.
Active Salmonella outbreak investigations
As of March 22, 2019, there are three active national Salmonella outbreak investigations linked to frozen raw chicken products, coordinated by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
1. Salmonella Enteritidis (Ontario)
Currently, there are two cases of illness in Ontario. Both cases have been hospitalized, but no deaths have been reported. Janes brand Pub Style Chicken Nuggets have been identified as a source of this outbreak and a food recall warning was issued on March 21, 2019.
2. Salmonella (multiple provinces)
Currently, there are 27 cases of illness in six provinces linked to this outbreak. Three of the ill individuals have been hospitalized, but no deaths have been reported. No Name brand Chicken Nuggets, Uncooked, Club Pack with a best before date of November 8, 2019, has been identified as a source of this outbreak.
3. Salmonella Enteritidis (multiple provinces)
Currently, there are 62 cases of illness in 10 provinces and one territory linked to this outbreak. None of the ill individuals have been hospitalized, and no deaths have been reported. Frozen raw breaded chicken products have been identified as sources of this outbreak and food recall warnings were issued on February 27 and January 25, 2019.
Canadians are advised not to consume the recalled products, and retailers and restaurants are advised to not sell or serve the recalled products.
How you can protect yourself
Remember that frozen breaded chicken products may contain raw chicken. As such, they should be handled and prepared just the same as any other raw chicken product. Always, always check the packaging to find out for sure.
Take the following precautions when preparing any frozen breaded chicken product to protect yourself from food-borne illness:
- Cook all frozen raw breaded chicken products to an internal temperature of at least 74°C (165°F). Use a food thermometer to verify the temperature. Find out how to use and calibrate a probe thermometer.
- Do not cook frozen raw breaded chicken products in the microwave; uneven heating can increase the risk of food-borne illness.
- Always follow the cooking instructions on the package, including products labelled “Cook and Serve”, “Ready to Cook”, or “Oven Ready”.
- Never rinse chicken before cooking it — you'll only splash bacteria all over your kitchen!
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before and after handling any chicken product.
- Use a separate plate, cutting board and utensils when handling frozen raw breaded chicken products and do not reuse plates, cutting boards or utensils that have come in contact with raw chicken products to serve the cooked product (unless they have been thoroughly washed).
When it comes to potentially hazardous foods like poultry, including frozen breaded chicken products, knowledge of safe food handling practices is essential to prevent food-borne illness outbreaks. Find out how to purchase, store, thaw, prepare, cook and serve potentially hazardous foods like raw chicken with the CIFS Guide to Potentially Hazardous Foods.