Editor’s note: The International Association for Food Protection convened a one-day seminar in Arlington, Va., to examine food safety issues associated with prepared, but not ready-to-eat foods. The event was co-sponsored by the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) and Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Following is a discussion with one of the meeting’s speakers, Bob Garfield, AFFI senior vice president of regulatory and international affairs. Garfield’s seminar topic was “Microwave issues and labeling concerns for the frozen food industry.”

Refrigerated & Frozen Foods: What events led to this special meeting and its focus on microwave-related issues?

Bob Garfield: The International Association for Food Protection (IAFP), an organization made up of food safety professionals – food industry representatives, government officials and academics – asked AFFI to jointly conduct the special meeting. IAFP offers a series of symposiums called “Timely Topics,” which address numerous issues of importance to the food industry.
This IAFP symposium will address the proper preparation of a class of foods considered “not-ready-to-eat” (containing raw or partially cooked ingredients) in microwave ovens.  The recent public health focus on these food products and the role of the microwave oven in food preparation influenced IAFP’s decision to convene the symposium.

R&FF: Please describe AFFI’s involvement with microwave issues.

Garfield: AFFI has a long-standing relationship – going back more than 20 years – with the microwave industry and its members. The goal has been to ensure the safe, effective use of this technology.
During the last 10 years, frozen food processors have dramatically enhanced the quality and innovative characteristics of foods suitable for microwave cooking. At the same time, advancements in packaging and new microwave oven technologies have given consumers an abundance of options when it comes to foods able to be prepared in the microwave.

R&FF: What have been a few of your group’s recent activities?

Garfield: In 2007, AFFI introduced the consumer guide, “Cooking with Microwave Ovens – Nutrition and Food Safety Considerations,” which we offered to our members for their use and dissemination. More recently, AFFI completed a package labeling guide for microwaveable foods. This guide will assist frozen food and other food processors in the development of labels and cooking instructions that are more easily understood by consumers. The guide is also intended to foster widespread industry use of more consistent language in microwave cooking instructions. 

AFFI also has met with microwave manufacturers, related associations, food retailers and regulators to discuss cooperative microwave cooking education projects that will help inform consumers and enhance the microwave cooking experience.

R&FF: Your members include foodservice processors as well. Are their products involved and if so, how?

Garfield: Foodservice establishments also use microwave ovens and the guidance material can certainly be of use to them. In addition, frozen food processors will modify their labels and clarify cooking instructions for foods prepared in the large-scale or industrial kitchen.  

R&FF: How has AFFI worked with microwave technology groups?

Garfield: AFFI has met with several groups about microwave technology including the International Microwave Power Institute and the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. We also met recently with GalanzInc., the world’s largest manufacturer of microwave ovens. AFFI expects the dialogue to continue with these organizations so that food processors can expand their knowledge of how microwave ovens cook foods, while microwave manufacturers learn more about the food products that rely on microwave technology for preparation.

It is important that microwave manufacturers and associated groups understand the potential for breaches in safety when “not-ready-to-eat” foods are not thoroughly cooked or are otherwise not properly prepared in a microwave oven.

R&FF: Looking ahead, what are a few of AFFI’s goals on this topic?

Garfield: AFFI has several goals for 2008 and beyond. These are to:

1) Expand consumer knowledge about the appropriate use of microwave ovens in the preparation of frozen food products;

2) Launch a safe microwave cooking Web site for consumers that features cooking guidance, simple instructions for determining the wattage of a microwave oven, and links to manufacturers’ Web sites that list oven wattage by model number;

3) Work with microwave manufacturers and food retailers to place consumer safety information in new microwave units and at grocery stores and other retail outlets;

4) Continue to work with food processors to expand and clarify package cooking instructions; and

5) Continue our dialogue with regulators and other stakeholders to ensure accurate and consistent information about microwave cooking is disseminated and appropriate public policy is applied to matters of food safety.

Industry insights
“The biggest problem is that all microwaves are not created equal. Since microwave ovens can heat food differently – and at different rates even when they are the same wattage – consumers cannot be sure that their products are getting hot enough or heating evenly.

It’s important to remember that consumers are not cooking – or going through a ‘kill step’ in microwaving. They are merely re-heating. When it comes to pre-made meals, food safety is ensured at the manufacturer and can’t be in the responsibility of the consumer.

Clear directions are needed for convenience and to ensure the product is reheated to provide good product quality. But microwaving is not a step for protection. We would like [microwaves] to protect [against food pathogens] but – considering all the microwaves in the consumers’ homes and how they heat so differently – no directions can be written to cover such a vast array of options. Kitchen thermometers are the only way to ensure products [heated inside the home] are reaching the proper temperature.”

-- A 27-year food packaging and product development professional and a consultant to the International Microwave Power Institute