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Brand new research for brand new food environments

What we eat and the way we prepare our foods is constantly evolving. Over the past few years, you may have discovered some new foods in your grocery store, like new frozen desserts. Or, you may have started using new cooking tools, like an air fryer, to cook your kids’ favourite chicken fingers.

While those new foods may be tasty and those new cooking methods may have certain advantages, did you ever stop and think about Salmonella? Probably not, but don’t fret! Someone else (or rather a whole team) has done it for you.

Dr. Tamber, Head of the Salmonella Research Laboratory at Health Canada’s Food Directorate, in the Bureau of Microbial Hazards, and her team are leading research to help reduce the risks of Salmonella caused by our ever-changing food environment (e.g., new types of foods, thawing or cooking methods).

It’s what Dr. Tamber calls addressing gaps in food safety research, and it’s what everybody else calls cutting-edge work.

So what about Salmonella?

In Canada, food-related illnesses linked to Salmonella are responsible for an estimated 925 hospitalizations and 17 deaths each year.

Salmonella is extremely common. As put by Dr. Tamber, “Salmonella is the most frequently reported bacterial cause of food-related diseases in Canada. This bacteria is what I call a quintessential pathogen. You can find it in a variety of foods, such as meat, processed foods, eggs, peanut butter and even frozen desserts.”

Salmonella and sweets, not a good combo!

While it’s common to think that Salmonella can only be found in meats or poultry, the 2019 outbreak related to cream puffs and mini chocolate eclairs proved that belief to be wrong.

Once the outbreak was over, Dr. Tamber and her team set out to examine how these foods could have caused an outbreak. “When we received the samples from the CFIA we were a bit stumped. We knew these specific samples contained Salmonella, but only at low levels. Yet, these foods were still making Canadians sick. We needed more information, but at the time, there was no research into how these types of foods could make people sick. That’s when we decided to create our own.”

Although they didn’t have much to go on, Dr. Tamber and her team did have a hunch. As any good scientists would, they decided to test the validity of that hunch by looking at different food storage and thawing conditions and how these factors could affect the levels of Salmonella in food.

And those efforts bore fruit. Dr. Tamber and her team found that if certain foods, like frozen desserts, were left out to thaw for too long it would create an ideal environment for Salmonella to grow. Their one-of-a-kind research paper was recently submitted to the journal Food Microbiology. If accepted, it will pave the way for a pioneering type of Salmonella research.

Safe internal temperatures

In addition to studying how bacteria can survive on food surfaces, Dr. Tamber and her team also study the link between Salmonella and new cooking methods.

Recently, they investigated the effectiveness of air fryers to cook frozen breaded products, such as chicken fingers. While cooking foods until they look like they are cooked might seem like a good idea, it really isn’t. You can’t tell if chicken is cooked by how it smells, tastes or looks. And because certain appliances can cook foods unevenly, studying how appliances cook foods is actually quite crucial.

“Often times, there are no specific cooking instructions for these foods, other than the conventional oven method. We test these new cooking methods with a variety of appliances to make sure Canadians are protected and aren’t taking any unnecessary risks in the kitchen.ˮ

Fortunately, her team’s research found that air fryers, if used properly, were effective at cooking these types of food products.

It’s good to know that somebody’s checking, right?

We get it, you don’t want to give up your air fryer, and we don’t want you to either. But it’s important to know the safe cooking temperatures when you’re cooking meat or poultry. To keep you and your family safe, you should also know the food safety basics regardless of what food you’re preparing, cooking, thawing or eating. To prevent food-related illnesses, like Salmonella, always remember to properly: clean, separate, cook and chill.

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