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Consumers Urged To “Cook It Safe” When Preparing Convenience Foods

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DETROIT (WWJ) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will partner with the International Food Information Council (IFIC), the Food and Drug Administration and the Partnership for Food Safety Education to raise awareness about the need to follow package instructions in order to fully cook pre-prepared foods and prevent foodborne illness.

Al Almanza, FSIS Administrator, said frozen or refrigerated convenience foods are popular items in many Americans’ homes, but there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to cooking these foods.

“Some of them can be microwaved, but others can’t. The ‘Cook It Safe’ campaign is designed to heighten awareness of this problem and correct misconceptions, putting an end to needless, preventable illnesses,” Almanza said in a release.

Marianne Smith Edge, Senior Vice President of Nutrition and Food Safety of the Foundation, said with only 61 percent of Americans following all package cooking instructions and even less use a food thermometer.

The “Cook It Safe” campaign encourages consumers to read and follow all cooking instructions printed on food packages before preparation, and two public service announcements feature teenagers, a known target group for these types of illnesses.

To prevent foodborne illness, follow the Cook It Safe Taskforce’s four basic messages:

1. Read and Follow Package Cooking Instructions

Pre-prepared meals are fast and convenient by design, but not taking the time to read the cooking instructions on the package can lead to undercooking. Food poisoning can occur when food is not cooked evenly to a safe internal temperature high enough to destroy harmful bacteria that might be present.

Frozen convenience foods may appear ready-to-eat and simply in need of being reheated, but many contain raw products that must be fully cooked before eating. Reading the product’s label should inform consumers whether the product needs to be reheated or thoroughly cooked.

If the package instructions for microwave cooking call for covering or stirring the food or allowing a “stand time,” do not ignore these steps, which contribute to even cooking. Covering food traps moisture and raises the temperature, while stirring prevents cold spots where bacteria can survive. A “stand time” is the time between removal from a heat source and consumption, when food continues to cook for a few minutes. Skipping these key parts of cooking instructions may allow bacteria to survive and lead to foodborne illness.

2. Know When to Use a Microwave or Conventional Oven

It is important to use the appliance the manufacturer recommends on the food package instructions, whether the instructions call for cooking in a conventional oven, convection oven, toaster oven, or microwave. Package cooking instructions are calibrated for a specific type of appliance and may not be applicable to all ovens. Frozen, breaded chicken products and similar items may appear to be fully cooked but actually consist of raw, uncooked product, and it may be tempting to cook these foods quickly in a microwave, but doing so may result in an unsafe product.

Additionally, some convenience foods are shaped irregularly and vary in thickness, creating opportunities for uneven cooking in a microwave. Even those microwaves equipped with a turntable can cook unevenly and leave cold spots of uncooked product where harmful bacteria can survive. After cooking in any type of appliance, always use a food thermometer to be sure the product has reached the recommended safe temperature to help prevent any risk of foodborne illness.

3. Know Your Microwave Wattage before Microwaving Food

If a microwave’s wattage is lower than the wattage required in the food package cooking instructions, it will take longer than the instructions specify to cook the food to a safe internal temperature. The higher the wattage of a microwave, the faster it will cook food. If you do not know the wattage of your microwave, look on the inside of the microwave door, on the serial number plate on the back of the microwave, or in the owner’s manual. You can also test the time it takes your microwave to boil water in order to estimate the wattage.

Measure one cup of plain tap water in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Add lots of ice cubes, and stir until the water is ice cold. Discard ice cubes and pour out excess water leaving only one cup remaining. Set the microwave on high for four minutes, and watch the water through the window to see when it boils.

  • If water boils in less than 2 minutes, it is a very high wattage microwave of 1000 watts or more.
  • If water boils in 2½ minutes, it is a high wattage microwave of about 800 watts or more.
  • If water boils in 3 minutes, it is an average wattage microwave of 650 to 700 watts or more.
  • If water boils in more than 3 minutes or not by 4 minutes, it is a slow microwave of 300 to 500 watts.

For high wattage microwaves, use the minimum recommended cooking time on the package instructions; use the maximum cooking time for slow microwaves. The minimum cooking time may need to be reduced for very high wattages. When the microwave signals the end of cooking, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the food.

4. Always Use a Food Thermometer to Ensure a Safe Internal Temperature

To be sure food has reached a temperature high enough to kill any bacteria that may be present, use a food thermometer and test the food in several places. This applies when cooking in microwaves or any other heat source. The safe internal temperatures that will ensure bacteria is killed in different types of foods are:

  • Whole cuts of fresh beef, pork, veal, and lamb: 145 °F, followed by a three-minute stand time
  • Fish: 145 °F
  • Ground beef, pork, veal, and lamb: 160 °F
  • Eggs and egg dishes: 160 °F
  • All poultry, ground or whole: 165 °F
  • Leftovers and casseroles: 165 °F
  • Hotdogs and reheated deli meats: 165 °F or steaming hot

For more information, visit www.FDA.gov or www.FoodSafety.gov.

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