Food Labels Are Serious Business
By Howard Seltzer, FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
Taking the handling instructions on food labels seriously can go a long way toward keeping you and your family healthy. By contrast, ignoring the labels can lead to very serious illnesses. Here are some recent examples.
Unrefrigerated Soup Tied to Botulism Cases
Recently, a consumer in the South bought a plastic container of soup from a salad bar in a supermarket. It was sold cold and clearly labeled:
HEAT & SERVE / KEEP REFRIGERATED
The soup sat unrefrigerated for a day or two before it was heated. The consumer tasted it and threw it out because it was “sour.” Despite having eaten very little of the soup, the consumer ended up in the hospital with botulism.
A similar case occurred in the Midwest last February. The consumer bought soup in a pack of two-plastic containers. It also was sold cold, and the labels also said to keep it refrigerated. One container was consumed immediately, with no ill effects. But, the consumer left the other container unrefrigerated for a week. Again, the consumer heated it, tasted it, and threw it out. And, again, that consumer also was hospitalized with botulism.
Botulism is as serious as food poisoning gets. It can result in respiratory failure and death. Even when patients survive, they may be hospitalized and on a ventilator for months, and they may suffer permanent neurological damage. So when a label says KEEP REFRIGERATED, keep the product refrigerated!
Follow the Label to Defeat Bacteria
While botulism is one of the most menacing foodborne illnesses, others are potentially quite serious as well, and product labels can help you avoid them. For example, if you pick up a package of hamburger in the grocery store, you’ll find a label with “Safe Handling Instructions.” It looks something like this:
“Cook thoroughly” means that you need to cook to a safe minimum cooking temperature – 160 F for hamburger. Don’t trust the color of the meat – use a food thermometer to be sure.
What if you don’t follow the label and the food is undercooked? Then you and your family are at risk of food poisoning from bacteria like E. coli. The worst type of E. colican lead to kidney failure and even death. Children age four and under are particularly susceptible.
Microwave Labels Protect You, Too
Always read and follow the cooking instructions on frozen microwave dinners to kill any dangerous bacteria that may be in the food.
- Cook it thoroughly: Many companies include cooking times for two wattage levels of microwave ovens. Or, they may explain that the cooking time on the package is for 1100-watt ovens, so you must adjust the time for lower wattage ovens. To be safe, use a food thermometer to check the dinner, especially if your microwave oven is less than 1100 watts.
- Don’t skip the standing time: The label may also recommend letting the food stand for a minute or two after cooking. This “standing time” is important to complete the cooking process throughout the food.
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