En español | Eating more frozen foods during the pandemic? The government is worried you're doing it wrong. New research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed that Americans may not know how to safely cook frozen foods, putting them at risk of getting foodborne illnesses, a greater danger for older adults.
The study, involving 403 people observed in test kitchens, concluded that consumers may falsely believe that frozen foods are fully cooked or ready to eat when they have browned breading, grill marks or other visual indicators that food is cooked. More than 1 in 5 study participants (22 percent) thought a frozen chicken entrée was either cooked, partially cooked or were unsure if it was ready-to-eat, when it was actually raw.
Top 5 germs that cause illnesses from food in the U.S.
- Clostridium perfringens
- Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)
In 2019, over 130 million Americans consumed complete frozen dinners, a figure that is expected to increase by 500,000 by 2023, according to a report published by Statista using data from the U.S. Census and Simmons National Consumer Survey.
"Although some frozen products may look cooked, it is important to follow the same food safety guidelines as you would if you were cooking a fresh, raw product,” said Mindy Brashears, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety. “Wash your hands before food preparation and after handling raw frozen products, and use a food thermometer to make sure your frozen meals reach a safe internal temperature."
Even after experiencing a foodborne illness, 61 percent of respondents to a national survey said they did not make changes to how they handled food at home, according to the USDA. More than half of those respondents reported having someone in their home who was considered at-risk for foodborne illness, a “concerning” factor for the USDA.
Those most at-risk for such illnesses are older adults, children, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems. An infection for these groups could lead to prolonged illness, hospitalization and even death, the USDA said.
How to cook frozen meals safely
The USDA recommends that home cooks read product labels to understand how to properly prepare a frozen food and not rely solely on its appearance.
In addition, always use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your frozen meat and poultry products to determine if they are safe to eat. Beef, pork, lamb and veal should be cooked to 145 degrees with a three-minute rest time; ground meats to 160 degrees; and poultry to 165 degrees.
Frozen and raw produce may also carry germs, so it is important to cook them first to a temperature of 165 degrees, a factor almost all the participants in the study failed to follow.
Inadequate handwashing may also be a contributing factor to foodborne illnesses. Nearly all study participants (97 percent) did not was their hands during meal prep to prevent cross-contamination. Hands should be washed properly before, during and after preparing frozen food to prevent germs from transferring from your hands to your meal. Of those who attempted to wash their hands in the study, 95 percent failed to do so properly.
If you have questions about food safety, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHOTLINE (1-888-674-6854) or chat live at ask.usda.gov.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that foodborne illnesses in the U.S. result in about 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually.