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Canadians aren’t cooking frozen breaded chicken properly — and it’s causing illnesses

WATCH: Tips on how to cook frozen, raw, breaded chicken

Canadians are increasingly getting ill from salmonella, and one reason is that they aren’t cooking breaded chicken products properly.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said in a press release that cases of food-borne illness salmonellosis have been steadily increasing for the past 10 years.

The most recent data on the Public Health Agency of Canada website shows that in 2015 there were 7,731 confirmed cases of salmonella illnesses in Canada.

READ MORE: 5 summer food poisoning risks and how to avoid them

Salmonella occurs naturally in chicken products and other foods.

Aline Dimitri, deputy chief food safety officer at the CFIA, told Global News that the problem isn’t necessarily in the actual products. It’s more about consumers not following instructions. The CFIA is specifically targeting frozen raw breaded products such as chicken strips, nuggets, and burgers.

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“When we’re talking about raw frozen breaded chicken, the issue isn’t that the product itself is not safe,” Dimitri said. “There are cooking requirements for these products because they are raw and simply frozen. They have to be cooked.”

In 2015, the food agency tried to target the problem by asking the poultry industry to add labels such as “raw” or “must be cooked” on boxes, as well as clear cooking instructions.

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Now, Dimitri says they’re trying to tackle the problem another way — by asking the industry to minimize the level of salmonella in the products.

“In order to keep the population safe, we asked them to strengthen their system, decrease the salmonella load. They have 12 months to comply with it,” she explained.

How to properly handle chicken products

But Keith Warriner, a food safety professor with the University of Guelph, said it’s tough to fully rid chicken of the bacteria.

That’s why Warriner explained the CFIA and the poultry industry can only do so much. The main responsibility lies with consumers to handle food properly.

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“CFIA are doing what they can. At the end of the day, it’s a raw chicken product. They can put labels on it saying this is not fully cooked, do not microwave, but people are what people are,” he told Global News.

Warriner explained part of the problem is that frozen breaded chicken products are often partially cooked, and that label causes confusion among consumers who think the products only need to be warmed up.

To avoid this confusion, Warriner suggests all such products are treated as if they’re completely raw. That means also taking precautions to avoid cross-contamination.

READ MORE: How to prevent food poisoning

“You wouldn’t put raw chicken on a cutting board and put lettuce on it straight after,” Warriner said. “It’s a good idea to use different coloured cutting boards for different products.”

But the most important rule for cooking chicken is to monitor the internal temperature to make sure it’s fully cooked — all the way through. The magic temperature is 74 C.

Health Canada provides more tips on cooking breaded chicken here.

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What happens if you get sick

Dimitri explained that symptoms of salmonella illness appear between six to 72 hours after exposure. They include things such as fever, chills, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headaches, nausea and vomiting.

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She added that most people who become sick will recover in a few days, but those with weaker immune systems may become severely ill. Pregnant women, young children, seniors, and those who have existing illnesses are most at risk of becoming seriously ill, or hospitalized.

Salmonella is the leading food borne illness in Canada.

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