Canada’s Council of Chief Medical Officers of Health is warning the public about the risk of Salmonella illnesses from frozen raw breaded chicken products.

“Canadians need to be aware that even though these products may appear to be cooked, they are not,” the Council for Chief Medical Officers of Health warned. The Council’s top officers, including Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada; Dr. Heather Morrison, chief public health officer for Prince Edward Island; and Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer for British Columbia, signed the statement.

Canada’s top public health doctors said most frozen breaded chicken products that are available for sale in the country contain raw chicken that can cause Salmonella illnesses “and therefore pose an increased health risk to Canadians who handle, prepare or consume them.”

The products targeted by the warning include but are not limited to chicken nuggets, chicken strips, chicken burgers, popcorn chicken, and chicken fries. These chicken products “need to be handled carefully and cooked properly to an internal temperature of at least 74 degrees C (165 degrees F) before they are safe to eat,” says the warning.

Hundreds of laboratory-confirmed human illnesses associated with frozen raw breaded chicken products contaminated with Salmonella have been recorded by Canadian federal, provincial and territorial public health officials during the past 16 months. Many of these instances involved inadequate cooking or handling.

For every laboratory-confirmed illness, the medical officers say there are dozens of additional unreported Salmonella illnesses in Canada. During the period in question, Canada also experienced several food recalls of frozen breaded chicken products.

“Despite these warnings and efforts to educate the public on safe-handling practices, we continue to see hundreds of Salmonella illnesses among Canadians of all ages because of consumption of or exposure to improperly cooked frozen raw breaded chicken products,” the medical officers said. “Most of the people who become ill from Salmonella infection will recover within a week. However, for some people, the infection can lead to more severe illness, hospitalization, and in rare cases, even death.”

In response, the Government of Canada announced it is now working with chicken producers to reduce Salmonella in frozen breaded products “below detectable amounts” by around April 1, 2019, thereby lowering the risk for handling and consuming the products.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has been working with the country’s poultry industry since at least early 2018 to reduce Salmonella levels.   Salmonella illnesses, on the rise in Canada for the past decade, often involve the strain most associated with poultry—Salmonella enteritis (SE). Consumer warnings about raw breaded poultry products being “uncooked” or “raw” were added to Canadian  packaging in 2015, but many still think the products are “ready-to-eat” or “pre-cooked.”  

“However, until April 1, 2019, and likely for up to a year after this date, frozen raw breaded chicken products containing Salmonella will continue to be in the marketplace and freezers around the country,” according to the warning.

“This is why, collectively, we are stressing the importance of handling and preparing frozen raw chicken products with caution.”

Anyone handling raw breaded chicken products should first wash their own hands. Next, all surfaces, dishes, and utensils must be cleaned and sanitized thoroughly. Fresh breaded chicken products must be cooked to the proper temperature, using a thermometer, to kill Salmonella bacteria.

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