<ul> <LI> Gather a representative compilation of consumer handling and cooking recommendations as found on packages of heat-treated but not fully cooked or shelf stable poultry products available in retail and food service in the U.S., specifically targeting raw, breaded, boneless poultry products that also may be stuffed or filled, char-marked, or artificially colored. These types of products have been implicated in a number of foodborne illness outbreaks.</LI><LI>
Conduct qualitative and quantitative research with consumers to determine how various food safety handling statements in product labeling are interpreted, including individual intent to act upon such interpretations. Questionnaires and videotaped observations of product preparation were used to identify gaps between intention and execution of food safety steps throughout the preparation process.</LI><LI>
Determine efficacy of current labeling guidelines in producing a safe end product when prepared as instructed under varied conditions, using Salmonella spp.-inoculated products in controlled cooking experiments.</LI></uL>
1) Foodborne illness outbreaks associated with these products continue to emphasize the risk factors linked to frozen, raw, breaded and/or stuffed chicken entrees. Many consumers remain under the impression that these products are fully cooked at the time of purchase and need only to be reheated. Fully cooked, pre-browned and uncooked products are frequently placed in close proximity in retail frozen foods displays, as well as very similarly packaged in many cases. Most recently, we found these products in single-serving cellophane wrappings, costing less than $1.00 each, and placed directly next to fully cooked products. When fully cooked and raw, pre-browned versions of the same products are available the raw, pre-browned product is generally less expensive, and thus more appealing to budget-conscious consumers.
2) Consumers continue to use preparation methods not specifically suggested by processors of these products, suggesting that statements discouraging product preparation in a microwave oven and promoting food thermometer use are not widely effective as currently being delivered on packages. Even the small percentage of consumers who attempted to follow safe handling guidelines failed to do so correctly in our consumer study. While an admirable and proactive step by industry leaders, removing microwave instructions from preparation recommendations has not prevented illnesses from being linked to this product category. A contributing factor to this is likely a consumer preference and tradition of utilizing a microwave oven to prepare these convenience oriented products. Further, we found that adolescents (a likely user of these products) were more likely to make critical preparation and cross-contamination mistakes in the kitchen.
3) Cooking studies using microwave ovens commonly found in retail (600 and 1,000 W) revealed that uniform heating is not achieved in this product category regardless of additional treatments such as flipping or covering products during cooking. Heating frozen single or multiple (two Kievs/cordon bleus and three chicken strips) units at one time in the microwave did not significantly impact heating uniformity or final product temperatures achieved. Microwave ovens of wattages below 1,000 W are readily available and reasonably priced for the average consumer based on our casual observations in local retail outlets and the internet. Our thermal profiling data clearly reveals that preparation in lower wattage ovens significantly increases the potential for an undercooked product that may lead to illness. In fact, in inoculated trials, Salmonella spp. was consistently recovered from all products prepared using the 600 W microwave oven when analyzed directly after cooking.
The data generated through this research will be of significant benefit to the meat and poultry industry by providing quantifiable insight into the levels of risk involved with these popular product types and will contribute to more effective risk management approaches that processors and trade organizations can utilize to prevent future negative scenarios. This project directly combined human observational data with controlled laboratory product preparation studies thus results generated a more accurate and inclusive understanding of numerous consumer/product risk issues. Contrary to assumptions, low wattage microwaves (600 W-750 W) are widely available in retail outlets and through the internet and will continue to present an increased consumer risk, regardless of producers’ most recent efforts to modify label instructions. This study strongly suggests that more effective mechanisms be established to convey less confusing, more standardized, and more compelling safe handling messages to a diverse consumer population if we are going to protect our product brands. Several critical topics were clearly established during this project that must be addressed through further research to comprehensively manage associated risks in this large product category. Differences in thermal properties of individual constituents (i.e. ham, chicken, cheese, and vegetables) in multi-component frozen products (i.e. chicken cordon bleus) must be better understood, particularly when microwaving is specified, provided as an option, or merely expected. This will better define what preparation schedules and handling information need to be included on different types of products. The differences in microwave ovens across consumers’ kitchens must be better understood and how location-specific factors (loss in power level due to loaded kitchen circuits) impact industry-validated safe product preparation instructions. This project provides definitive evidence that observational studies, as opposed to self-reported surveys, are necessary to evaluate the actual effectiveness of consumer messages to influence their “intent” to act upon those statements. Messages should be evaluated in this manner prior to their implementation.