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Salmonella outbreak linked to Compliments-brand chicken strips

Chicken consumers, check your freezer. The Public Health Agency of Canada has announced a national outbreak of salmonella linked to certain Compliments-brand chicken strips.

The agency said there have been 11 illnesses in seven provinces — between September 2018 and April — linked to the outbreak. The breakdown of cases is:

  • British Columbia (2).
  •  Alberta (1).
  • Ontario (2).
  • Quebec (3).
  • New Brunswick (1).
  • Nova Scotia (1).
  • Prince Edward Island (1).

One person has been hospitalized, no deaths have been reported. The breaded chicken strips, distributed by Sofina Foods of Markham, Ont., were recalled on Friday. The products subject to the recall were sold nationally in 907-gram boxes until May 1.

“When not thoroughly cooked, frozen breaded chicken products containing raw chicken pose an increased health risk to individuals who handle, prepare or consume them. You can significantly reduce your risk of getting sick by handling and preparing these products with caution,” the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said a statement.

A recent study said breaded chicken in particular can sicken people because the golden colour can make raw nuggets and strips seem cooked.

Sofina’s portfolio of branded and private label foods also includes pork, beef, turkey, and chicken products from Cuddy, Lilydale, Janes, Mastro, San Daniele, Fletcher’s, Vienna and Zamzam, which are not included in the new recall.

Safe cooking practices

All frozen, raw breaded chicken products need to be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 74 C (165 F) and handled safely.

For whole chickens, public health officials recommend inserting a digital food thermometer through its side, all the way to the middle. But oven-safe meat thermometers meant for testing whole chicken and roasts are not suitable for testing nuggets, strips or burgers.

What’s more, microwave cooking of frozen, raw, breaded chicken products — including chicken nuggets, strips, burgers, popcorn chicken or chicken fries — is not recommended because of the possibility of uneven heating.

Stricter standards

Health officials hope that new measures for the poultry industry that took effect on April 1 will reduce future illnesses related to salmonella in such products.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has said that starting April 1, all manufacturers need to reduce salmonella levels “to below detectable amounts” in breaded chicken products packaged for retail sale.

In most cases, the chicken will now be cooked before it’s frozen, poultry industry officials said.

Raw products will need to be clearly labelled, said April Hexemer, an outbreak manager with PHAC in Guelph, Ont.

“A lot of manufacturers have chosen to cook it, so there should be some kind of indication on the package,” Hexemer said.

Manufacturers have also added the words “uncooked” and “raw” to the product labels. They’re also now printing cooking instructions on both the box and on the bag inside, since people may toss the containers to save space in their freezers.

Daniele Dufour, senior director of communications for Sofina, said consumers should look for visual icons indicating how to cook the products.

Dufour said all Compliments and Janes chicken products now manufactured are cooked.

“We’re really hoping that these new measures in combination with our ongoing education programs and messaging that we’re going to see a decrease in the illnesses associated with these products,” Hexemer said.

In Canada, our preference for convenient, frozen chicken products and the large scale of the poultry industry each contribute to outbreaks, said Keith Warriner, a food safety expert at the University of Guelph.

Some people who get infected with salmonella recover fully after a few days without medical help. Others will have no symptoms at all.

The CFIA warns that food contaminated with salmonella may not look or smell spoiled but can still make you sick.

About two years ago, the federal government implemented a new process, called whole genome sequencing, that can detect the bacteria that cause some illnesses and remove affected products from the market, Hexemer said.

People particularly at risk are young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems who could contract serious and sometimes deadly infections.

Common short-term symptoms experienced by healthy people may include fever, headache, vomiting, nausea, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Long-term complications may include severe arthritis.

As of May 25, federal health official report 584 laboratory-confirmed cases of salmonella illness investigated as part of the illness outbreaks across the country.

What’s more, the strain of salmonella that’s been implicated in those outbreaks is called salmonella enteritidis, Warriner said. “It causes illnesses at a very low dose.”

Hexemer said they estimate that for every lab-confirmed salmonella case, there are another 26 in Canada that are reported through to their surveillance system.


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