Chow line: Frozen food safety

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We bought some frozen chicken breasts that already have grill marks on them. The grill marks mean the chicken is already cooked, so I can just heat it up in the microwave, right?

Not necessarily. 

While some frozen foods have the appearance of grill marks, browned breading, or other signs that normally indicate that the foods have been cooked, they can still be raw and need to be fully cooked before eating. It’s best to read the packaging on frozen foods before eating them to make sure you prepare them correctly. Proper preparation is key to avoiding foodborne illnesses from eating raw or undercooked foods that need to be cooked before eating.

However, a new study released last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service found that many consumers might not know how to cook frozen foods safely, which can put families at risk of developing foodborne illnesses. 

The study found that 22% of participants said a not-ready-to-eat frozen chicken entrée was either cooked, partially cooked, or they weren’t sure that the product was in fact, raw.

“Although some frozen products might look cooked, it is important to follow the same food safety guidelines as you would if you were cooking a fresh, raw product,” the USDA said in a statement. “That includes washing your hands before food preparation and after handling raw frozen products and using a food thermometer to make sure your frozen meals reach a safe internal temperature.”

This issue takes on increased significance considering that frozen food has been a big seller throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with frozen food growth overall outpacing sales of other packaged foods and fresh foods this year, according to a recent analysis by market research firm 210 Analytics. 

In fact, the frozen food market is estimated to account for $244.3 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach a value of $312.3 billion by 2025, according to market research firm MarketsandMarkets.

Many families find frozen food products to be a convenient option because children can prepare frozen meals easily on their own, the USDA says. 

With that in mind, “it’s especially important for children to know how to practice the necessary food safety steps needed to prepare frozen meals to avoid foodborne illness, and to help them do so, parents must first understand if products are raw or ready-to-eat,” the USDA said.

Here are some tips from the USDA when preparing frozen foods:

  • Wash your hands during and after preparing frozen food to prevent germs from transferring from your hands to your meal.
  • Although frozen products might appear to be precooked or browned, they should be handled and prepared no differently than raw products and must be cooked. Frozen products are sometimes labeled with phrases such as “Cook and Serve,” “Ready to Cook,” and “Oven-Ready” to indicate they must be cooked.
  • Always use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your frozen meat and poultry products to determine whether they are safe to eat.
  • All poultry dishes should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that they are cooked thoroughly enough to kill any pathogens that could cause a foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s best to use a food thermometer placed in the thickest part of the chicken to make sure it is cooked to a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
  • The safe minimum cooking temperature for ground meats, including beef, pork, veal, and lamb, is 160 degrees F, according to the USDA. Steak and pork can be safely cooked to 145 degrees F.
  • Frozen and raw produce can also carry germs that can cause foodborne illnesses. It is important to handle produce properly to prevent the spread of germs to your food and kitchen.
  • Even if you are preparing a cold salad, frozen produce must be cooked first.
  • Check that frozen food in your freezer has not been recalled. You can find information about recalled items at or FoodKeeper application.

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, state specialist in food safety for Ohio State University Extension.

Tracy Turner
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Sanja Ilic