In recent weeks we have seen several Salmonella outbreaks all linked to the same type of food – namely frozen raw chicken products. An outbreak in Canada associated with chicken nuggets affected 47 people, while two more in the USA linked to stuffed chicken Kiev type products accounted for a further nine cases. Large recalls of the implicated foods have been initiated in both countries and public health and food safety agencies have reiterated advice to consumers about how to handle and prepare these uncooked products safely to remove the risk of infection. This is very far from the first instance of food poisoning outbreaks being traced to uncooked chicken nuggets and similar foods. The most recent occurred last autumn when a cluster of six cases in Minnesota was reportedly linked to chicken Kiev products similar to those suspected of causing one of the current US outbreaks.
What is going on here? It is tempting to blame careless consumers for not reading labels and failing to follow the cooking instructions, but that doesn’t really explain these outbreaks adequately. For example, some of those affected by the current US outbreaks report cooking the product exactly as the instructions recommend – even using a food thermometer to check the internal temperature in one case. It is clear that the problems arise because these chicken products often look as though they are cooked, especially when they are coated in breadcrumbs, even though they are raw and clearly identified as such on the packaging. But I think this is much more likely to lead to cross contamination of other foods rather than undercooking. Most consumers know that when you handle raw meat you need to wash your hands before you handle other food, but with raw products that look cooked it is much less obvious that this is necessary. Nevertheless, the risk is the same. As the USDA has pointed out, even breadcrumbs dislodged from a chicken nugget could be contaminated with Salmonella and could end up on a chopping board or utensil. Perhaps the “this is raw meat” message needs to be communicated more clearly and with more emphasis on hygienic preparation.
The response to these outbreaks also asks another question. Is a recall really the best approach? There is almost always a risk of Salmonella contamination in raw chicken and still comparatively little that can be done to control it at the processing stage. Until vaccination programmes are universally applied to completely eliminate Salmonella in broiler flocks the bacteria will always be present in the poultry production chain and consumers will need to handle raw chicken with care. Unless the implicated chicken products contain unusually high levels of Salmonella as a result of a processing fault, a recall doesn’t make much sense scientifically. On the other hand, even a fairly pointless response to a food poisoning outbreak plays better in the media than none at all.