Poisoned by one of our pies? Your fault for bad cooking

In this “can’t cook” society – can it be right that food manufacturers are relying on the fact that consumers have to get foods to the right temperatures to kill the bugs inherent in their products? This article in the New York Times shows that 27,000 people in the States were affected by salmonella in just one incidence this year. Nine died. Me, I make my own pies.

The frozen pot pies that sickened an estimated 15,000 people with salmonella in 2007 left federal inspectors mystified. At first they suspected the turkey. Then they considered the peas, carrots and potatoes.

The pie maker, ConAgra Foods, began spot-checking the vegetables for pathogens, but could not find the culprit. It also tried cooking the vegetables at high temperatures, a strategy the industry calls a “kill step,” to wipe out any lingering microbes. But the vegetables turned to mush in the process.

So ConAgra — which sold more than 100 million pot pies last year under its popular Banquet label — decided to make the consumer responsible for the kill step. The “food safety” instructions and four-step diagram on the 69-cent pies offer this guidance: “Internal temperature needs to reach 165° F as measured by a food thermometer in several spots.”

Increasingly, the corporations that supply Americans with processed foods are unable to guarantee the safety of their ingredients. In this case, ConAgra could not pinpoint which of the more than 25 ingredients in its pies was carrying salmonella. Other companies do not even know who is supplying their ingredients, let alone if those suppliers are screening the items for microbes and other potential dangers, interviews and documents show.

Yet the supply chain for ingredients in processed foods — from flavorings to flour to fruits and vegetables — is becoming more complex and global as the drive to keep food costs down intensifies. As a result, almost every element, not just red meat and poultry, is now a potential carrier of pathogens, government and industry officials concede.

In addition to ConAgra, other food giants like Nestlé and the Blackstone Group, a New York firm that acquired the Swanson and Hungry-Man brands two years ago, concede that they cannot ensure the safety of items — from frozen vegetables to pizzas — and that they are shifting the burden to the consumer. General Mills, which recalled about five million frozen pizzas in 2007 after an E. coli outbreak, now advises consumers to avoid microwaves and cook only with conventional ovens. ConAgra has also added food safety instructions to its other frozen meals, including the Healthy Choice brand.

Peanuts were considered unlikely culprits for pathogens until earlier this year when a processing plant in Georgia was blamed for salmonella poisoning that is estimated to have killed nine people and sickened 27,000. Now, white pepper is being blamed for dozens of salmonella illnesses on the West Coast, where a widening recall includes other spices and six tons of frozen egg rolls.

The problem is particularly acute with frozen foods, in which unwitting consumers who buy these products for their convenience mistakenly think that their cooking is a matter of taste and not safety.

Federal regulators have pushed companies to beef up their cooking instructions with the detailed “food safety” guides. But the response has been varied, as a review of packaging showed. Some manufacturers fail to list explicit instructions; others include abbreviated guidelines on the side of their boxes in tiny print. A Hungry-Man pot pie asks consumers to ensure that the pie reaches a temperature that is 11 degrees short of the government-established threshold for killing pathogens. Questioned about the discrepancy, Blackstone acknowledged it was using an older industry standard that it would rectify when it printed new cartons.

Government food safety officials also point to efforts by the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a nonprofit group founded by the Clinton administration. But the partnership consists of a two-person staff and an annual budget of $300,000. Its director, Shelley Feist, said she has wanted to start a campaign to advise consumers about frozen foods, but lacks the money.

Estimating the risk to consumers is difficult. The industry says that it is acting with an abundance of caution, and that big outbreaks of food-borne illness are rare. At the same time, a vast majority of the estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness every year go unreported or are not traced to the source.

Home Cooking

Some food safety experts say they do not think the solution should rest with the consumer. Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said companies like ConAgra were asking too much. “I do not believe that it is fair to put this responsibility on the back of the consumer, when there is substantial confusion about what it means to prepare that product,” Dr. Osterholm said.

And the ingredient chain for frozen and other processed foods is poised to get more convoluted, industry insiders say. While the global market for ingredients is projected to reach $34 billion next year, the pressure to keep food prices down in a recession is forcing food companies to look for ways to cut costs.

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