There’s no denying the convenience of throwing frozen food into an air fryer, microwave, toaster oven, or other small cooking appliance when you’re hungry and in a rush.
But a new CDC report suggests that people are getting sick in repeated outbreaks of food poisoning because they are cooking frozen stuffed chicken products in appliances other than a conventional oven.
We are talking about products that are usually breaded, like chicken stuffed with broccoli and cheese, chicken cordon bleu, or chicken Kyiv. These are “heat-treated,” or cooked enough to set the breading before they are frozen, but some products have totally raw chicken inside.
Because of the breading, people often think they are fully cooked, but these chicken products need to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to be safe to eat. So they should be cooked in a conventional oven if possible, the CDC says.
Since 1998, breaded and stuffed raw chicken products have been connected to 14 outbreaks and about 200 illnesses, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Last year, an outbreak involving these products resulted in 36 infections and 12 hospitalizations across 11 states. People who became ill reported ignoring cooking instructions, cooking the food in a microwave or air fryer, cooking the food for a shorter time than recommended, or not using a food thermometer to ensure the meat was at the correct temperature.
Studies have found that smaller, portable (and often cheaper) appliances may not be able to heat or cook frozen chicken enough to kill lurking bacteria, most often salmonella.
For example, they may heat up only one part of the chicken to a high enough temperature.
In general, salmonella bacteria are responsible for about 1.35 million infections, 27,000 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths each year in the US.
This has been an ongoing problem for years, and manufacturers have updated food labels to try to prevent people from getting sick from undercooked chicken — but new labels haven’t helped.
The instructions on many frozen chicken products exclude information about cooking them in anything other than a conventional oven. To make matters worse, data shows many people ignore those instructions altogether, or throw them away long before they decide to cook a product.
So while it can be safe to use your microwave or air fryer to prepare frozen chicken in some cases, experts say you have to pay extra attention to instructions, know what raw versus cooked chicken looks like, and check your appliance’s wattage to ensure it’s capable of leaving you with edible meat.
“The important thing to remember when cooking chicken via any method is to ensure that the meat is cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, which is achievable in appliances other than a conventional oven,” said Abby Langer, a registered dietitian and owner of Abby Langer Nutrition. But “even when cooking in an oven, it's important to verify that the meat is cooked to the appropriate temperature, and to be able to identify cooked versus raw product.”
According to the new report, CDC researchers conducted a nationally representative survey between May and July of more than 4,100 people who use such products. They found that about 83% of respondents used an oven as one of their cooking methods for frozen stuffed chicken products, but 54% reported using other appliances instead of or in addition to ovens; 30% said they used air fryers, 29% used microwaves, 14% used toaster ovens, and 4% used other appliances.
Among those who used a microwave, about one-third didn’t know the wattage of their appliance. (The higher the wattage, the faster it can reach a high temperature, which can help kill bacteria.) Meanwhile, 8% of users who did know the wattage were using a microwave with insufficient power levels to cook frozen chicken.
People with lower incomes and who live in mobile-type homes — like recreational vehicles, boats, and vans — were less likely to use ovens to cook frozen chicken, according to the survey, most likely because they lacked the space or resources to own one.
How to ensure your frozen food is cooked
Here’s some advice for the next time you cook frozen chicken:
- Always try to use a conventional oven if possible, and read the instructions on the product’s packaging.
- If you can’t use a conventional oven, make sure you follow the specific instructions for microwaves, toaster ovens, or air fryers.
- If specific instructions for other appliances are not available, insert a meat thermometer in the center of the thickest part of the product to make sure it rises to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
- If you feel sick after eating the frozen chicken you made, document everything you ate in the last week before symptoms began and visit a doctor.