A television show recently showed parents how to make chicken strips for their children in a short amount of time. The recipe was simple enough: strips of chicken were rolled in crumbs and placed in the oven for 10 minutes. The host of the show went on to explain, as the strips came out of the oven, simply squeeze the strips to determine the doneness of the product.
I was awestruck as the host revealed to observers watching nationwide her absurd method for determining whether the chicken strips had reached a safe endpoint temperature. The only reliable way to check the doneness of the chicken product would have been to use a food thermometer. Not color. Not the squeeze method. Just temperature.
Over the last ten years, there have been several foodborne outbreaks associated with frozen, uncooked, pre-browned chicken entrees. Lee Weiss of Milaca, Minnesota fell ill after consuming a chicken cordon bleu dinner. His wife apparently cooked the product according to the directions printed on the package; however, she did not check the internal temperature of the product with a thermometer. After eating the product, Weiss described a sensation of something “swimming in his stomach.” He had been violated by a foodborne pathogen. The infection left him with extreme weight loss, a large hospital bill, and difficulty eating specific foods in the future. This is just one illustration of an individual who has suffered from salmonellosis after eating an undercooked stuffed, pre-browned chicken entrée.
Many individuals underestimate the importance of using a food thermometer, especially with small meat products. Most individuals associate using a food thermometer with larger meats, such as turkeys or roasts. The processors of raw, frozen breaded chicken entrees put the statement—Uncooked: for food safety, cook to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F measured by a meat thermometer—on their product’s packaging for a reason. What many don’t realize about breaded chicken products is that the breading alters the consistency of the product which could cause uneven cooking. And uneven cooking can lead to foodborne illness.
Recent consumer studies have revealed a variety of excuses why people do not use a food thermometer. Some place blame on their role models; Martha Stewart didn’t, so they don’t. Some have more knowledge about how to use a palm pilot than how to operate a food thermometer. For some, it’s inconvenient, others are lazy. Many think it’s unnecessary to stick a metal temperature reading probe into their chicken cordon bleu.
There are reasons why individuals should use a food thermometer. You are helping to keep your children healthy. Children under the age of ten are in the high risk group for getting a foodborne illness. By using a food thermometer you are ensuring the food product has reached an internal temperature high enough to destroy foodborne pathogens, thus reducing your chances of acquiring a foodborne illness. The overall quality of the product can be enhanced. By using a food thermometer foods will not be overcooked and will taste better.
Next time you are preparing a small meat product, such as a frozen chicken entrée, make sure to use a food thermometer, so you won’t end up like Lee Weiss—with something swimming in your stomach.
Sarah DeDonder is a PhD student at Kansas State University.