I hope three trays of chicken parm wasn't wasted
July 24, 2010 8:44 PM   Subscribe

Food safety-filter. Was this cooked, frozen chicken breast mishandled, or am I giving in to my own hypersensitive food safety guidelines?

I know that I am more cautious than the average person regarding food safety, mostly because I feel that I've been handed an unfair share of food poisoning in the past. That said, I'm trying not to let that cloud my judgment. Here's what went down.

Ingredients: Frozen, breaded, precooked chicken breast. Homemade tomato sauce. Mozzarella and parmesan cheese. End result: chicken parm.

I suggested we bake the chicken breast in the oven 'til it was crisp, then assemble the trays with sauce and cheese, and bake. Reheat the next day, when it's needed for a family gathering.

My suggestion was shot down, and this is what happened: Chicken was removed from the freezer at 12 pm, laid out in trays on the counter to thaw. Kitchen temp hovered around 87 degrees, because holy crap, heat wave's been crazy around here. ~5 pm, trays are assembled with sauce and cheese, then covered in tinfoil and placed in fridge. They will then be cooked at approximately 12 pm tomorrow.

My family thinks that because the chicken was precooked, it didn't matter that it was left out for several hours in the heat, then placed back in the fridge, then to be cooked again tomorrow. I say that bacteria doesn't care if chicken is raw or cooked.

Please, MeFi, what are your thoughts?

This is not a 'should I eat it' question because, well, I know I won't, regardless of answers here. It already squicks me out.
posted by rachaelfaith to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Thawing meat at room temperature is a recipe for incubating bacteria. That, right there, probably spoiled your food. And the toxins secreted by some bacteria aren't killed by cooking. So your instincts are right on.

Good on you for not eating it. But it would also seem to be important to keep the other attendees from eating the dish, too; pot-luck dinners are fantastic sources of mass food poisoning.
posted by Dimpy at 8:54 PM on July 24, 2010

Best answer: The FDA/USDA says the food safety danger zone is from 40 °F-140 °F and says (on the website), "...never leave food out of refrigeration over 2 hours. If the temperature is above 90 °F, food should not be left out more than 1 hour."

Is your family guaranteed to become ill? No. But I certainly wouldn't chance it (glad you're not) and if you have any family members who have compromised immune systems (babies, the elderly, anyone with a chronic disease), you may want to apprise them of the situation.
posted by cooker girl at 9:07 PM on July 24, 2010

Cooked food can give you food poisoning, too. That dish is not safe to eat.
posted by ErikaB at 9:21 PM on July 24, 2010

I agree with the other answers; I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole. I took a relatively rigorous mandatory food safety course , and we were taught that a situation like this would be completely unacceptable. That chicken is probably a petri dish for bacteria. It's best to thaw food overnight in the fridge, and if it's still frozen you can either defrost in the microwave (which I never do, because it always turns to rubber) or fill the sink with COLD water and submerge the chicken to thaw, constantly changing the water and ensuring it is cold (it will still thaw). I wouldn't do it for more than an hour or two, either.

I'm glad you're not eating that chicken. As others have said, perhaps nobody will end up getting sick from it, but that doesn't mean they aren't ingesting harmful bacteria--perhaps their immune systems are healthy/robust, or maybe (just maybe) most of the bacteria were killed in the cooking process. Of course, not all bacteria are killed by cooking.
posted by 1000monkeys at 10:09 PM on July 24, 2010

Everything will be fine.

I assume they all like well heated food, and it will be. Lemme guess 350 for about an hour? That's pretty much the recipe every midwestern housewife knows.

Whatever bacteria that are reproducing now will be killed tomorrow with the baking.
posted by sanka at 10:11 PM on July 24, 2010

Also, if I followed the exact USDA's recommendations, I would have been dead at least three times this week. And every week for the last 30 years. I mean really. Humans used to eat raw meat from a carcass. Your family will live just fine with well cooked meat.
posted by sanka at 10:19 PM on July 24, 2010

Response by poster: I don't think anyone is going to DIE from eating the final dish. Yeesh. I don't think the USDA is implying that either, just that it's unsafe.

Some have suggested I try not to let it be served, but this issue is a sore spot with my family right now, as they clearly disagreed with my version of safe food handling. I doubt they'd be pleased if I suggested they didn't serve it.
posted by rachaelfaith at 10:34 PM on July 24, 2010

Oh, sure, the bacteria will be killed, sanka. The toxins the bacteria produce, however, will happily survive any amount of heat you throw at them. And they could make people sick. I'm not suggesting anyone will die. If it were me (and it's not me, clearly), I would feel absolutely terrible if I didn't say something and someone got sick. That's just me, though, which is why I suggested you tell your family that serving this dish is a bad idea, rachaelfaith. Here's what I hope happens*: you don't eat the dish, everyone else does, and they all get mild stomach aches that do nothing more than make the point that you were right.

*not really, but sort of. you know what i mean.
posted by cooker girl at 10:39 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: They have obviously been doing something like this for years, and they are still alive. You stick with what you know.
posted by sanka at 10:40 PM on July 24, 2010

So to answer your question: it was mishandled. Is anybody going to die from it? No, probably not. Get sick from it? Possibly, but not likely. But yes, it was mishandled.

I personally was VIOLENTLY ILL from food poisoning from eating a cafeteria chicken casserole/stew thing that was kept fairly warm but not hot enough for only a couple hours. It was not pretty: I was doing a theatre show and was throwing up back stage and then running on stage and dancing/singing and repeating the vicious cycle, so I personally am very cautious about food safety.
posted by 1000monkeys at 11:00 PM on July 24, 2010

You've gotten some answers that say "your ancestors did that all the time so it's fine" and others that say "I did that once and it was not good." Neither of these recommendations is actually based on, you know, science. The USDA guidelines are.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 11:40 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

So what?

Because you never know. Maybe that 1 out of 1000 times is also the time that your immune system is silently trying to fight off some other disease that you are immune to. But in your weakened state, you can't quite manage it and end up in the hospital for three days. Maybe grandma is elderly and can't manage violent salmonella-diarrhea the way she used to be able to. Maybe some other people aren't willing to trade "the shits" for the temporary joy of homemade chicken.

Following the food safety guidelines is not hard and serves to move those 1 in 1000 times to 1 in 10,000 or higher.

It always amazes me how willing some people are to ignore the science of food safety. Statistically, some number of us here aren't dead because other people DID follow the rules.
posted by gjc at 3:02 AM on July 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If we were talking a bending of USDA guidelines, I'd say it's fine. USDA is extra conservative about guidelines for good reason. The nature of these guidelines means "probably" or "almost certainly" isn't good enough. They want certainty.

You're talking about five hours at room temperature. If this chicken was previously handled at the factory, that makes it even worse. On top of that, it's poultry. It's probably not a pan of bubonic plague, but you're on the safe side not eating it. As a healthy adult with a stomach of steel, I'll ignore USDA guidelines often. However, poultry is one thing I don't mess around with.

It sounds like you won't win this battle. Get a bottle of Pepto and some Gatorade in case, someone may be using it tonight.
posted by Saydur at 4:28 AM on July 25, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - metatalk is your option.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:25 AM on July 25, 2010

Humans used to eat raw meat from a carcass

It's also important to remember that this reasoning is flawed because neither the meat production methods nor the bacterial environment are anywhere near the same as when we ate raw meat from a carcass -- let alone 50 years ago. Our food can actually be more dangerous today, in some cases, than at many times in the past, because of factory farming and underinspected slaughterhouses and resistant bateriums.

It's a pity your family didn't do it your way, because it would have tasted better too - you'd have been able to crisp up the breading and then pour the sauce on. Doing it their way, the whole thing would be soggy mush.

I'm pretty casual about this stuff, even given the risk, so I might have eaten it. Might have. But it was definitely mishandled. It's true that bacteria is present on food constantly - it's only when conditions are right and it proliferates that it makes people sick. I think most of the time, a combination of luck, something retarding bacterial growth, and overall good health let people get off easy from eating contaminated food. And a lot of times, people get sick a day later and don't connect it to the food, just decide they've got a little bit of "stomach flu." But foodborne illness is pretty common, so I don't really think you're overreacting.
posted by Miko at 8:14 AM on July 25, 2010

After being handled in the manner in which you describe, the food is no longer guaranteed to be safe. The USDA food handling guidelines are designed to basically eliminate risk.

In my non-expert, ill-informed opinion, the food is almost certainly fine; your risk of substantial contamination is very very low. (I play fast and loose with this sort of thing all the time, eating chicken cacciatore leftovers that were left out all night, leaving lamb to marinate on the counter all day, stuff like that, and I've never had food poisoning in my life. But I might also have divergent gut flora, possibly from eating incrementally-spoiled food my whole life. So don't use my example as any kind of evidence.) But it is not guaranteed to be safe.

The problem here is that you have legitimate concerns, but if you insist upon raising the point, then the people who ate the food and were fine will mock you for it and be less likely to believe you in the future. I don't have a good solution for that problem, unfortunately. It's basically a difference in risk tolerance.
posted by KathrynT at 12:17 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I appreciate the balanced views, so thanks to all. It was served at the party just now because my family, like KathrynT says, had already mocked me for bringing up the idea that it was not a great way to prepare it, let alone trying to get them to not serve it.

I did not eat it and I didn't make a big scene about warning people, but I took someone aside who I know has digestive issues, and gently steered her away from the chicken parm. I genuinely hope no one gets sick; I don't want this to be an "I told you so" situation.

This situation serves to remind me to be happy that I live on my own and prepare my own food.
posted by rachaelfaith at 12:47 PM on July 25, 2010

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