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Food poisoning cases bring safety of frozen foods into spotlight

This image shows the back of a package of "Wagyu Sagamibuta Mince Niku no Ishikawa" minced meat cutlets. The correct way to cook it is written in small print. (Photo courtesy of the Kanagawa Prefectural Government)

Recent cases of food poisoning involving a type of frozen food, and the fact that it is not covered by the same standards as other similar products, has brought the issue of food safety into the spotlight.

    There have been group cases of E. coli O157 food poisoning recently, mostly in Kanagawa Prefecture, among people who ate frozen minced meat cutlets. Such meat cutlets are mostly premade but final preparation steps, like frying in oil, are left up to the consumer.

    Referred to as "half-prepared products," typical examples of this food include meat dumplings, meat cutlets and croquettes. They are meant to give consumers freshly-made foods without requiring the effort of preparations like gathering ingredients and adding seasoning. Sold in packages that look similar to those of other frozen foods, half-prepared products are often sold in the same sections of stores as other frozen foods, but unlike the latter, there are no set standards such as maximum levels of bacteria permitted or the temperature at which the products should be stored.

    The recent food poisoning cases occurred with "Juicy Minced Cutlets," made by Yonekyu Corp. in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, and "Wagyu Sagamibuta Mince Niku no Ishikawa" minced meat cutlets made by Niku no Ishikawa based in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. As of Nov. 10, over 50 people have reportedly suffered food poisoning from the products.

    A Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare division for environmental health and food safety notes that for consumers, "half-prepared products" are difficult to differentiate from other frozen foods, and the cooking of raw meats in them is liable to be insufficient. The ministry is considering measures such as requiring the same kind of standards for "half-prepared products" as other frozen foods, or forbidding the use of the "half-prepared products" category and incorporating it with other frozen foods.

    Government officials of Kanagawa Prefecture, where most of the recent food poisoning incidents took place, have questioned the victims and were told that the meat "seemed somewhat raw" or "was red when I cut into it."

    E. coli O157 dies if cooked at 75 degrees Celsius for a minute or longer, but it is possible the food poisoning victims did not thoroughly cook the products.

    The back of the package for Niku no Ishikawa's minced meat cutlets reads, in small print, "Fry the frozen product in oil for six minutes at 170 to 175 degrees Celsius." The Kanagawa Prefectural Government, considering these instructions insufficient, has advised the company that "to prevent insufficiently cooked products from being eaten in homes, there should be clear instructions."

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