Tuesday, May 26, 2009 , 12:01 a.m.

Danger lurks in home freezer

Source of Article:  http://timesfreepress.com/news/2009/may/26/danger-lurks-home-freezer/?opiniontimes

You’d think that the recent rise in the number of sometimes deadly food-borne illnesses would prompt manufacturers of processed foods and federal agencies to do all in their power to enhance public safety. Not so.

In the case of the food companies, at least, they’re shirking the responsibility. Rather than boost efforts to prevent pathogens, they’re conceding they can’t guarantee the safety of processed foods and telling consumers that they’re responsible for making sure the food they consume is safe to eat. That’s a bad idea.

If corporations with large staffs, big budgets and access to the latest scientific information and equipment can’t identify what causes food-borne illness, then consumers are unlikely to be able to do so. It is, for those who remember their high school Latin, a particularly egregious and dangerous case of “caveat emptor” — let the buyer beware.

Calculated business decision

For the food companies, the decision to place the burden of food safety on the consumer is a calculated business decision. They apparently assume that consumers will continue to buy their products, either mitigate or ignore the risk of possible illness and allow profits to continue. In a sense, the companies aren’t exposing themselves to much risk. While the number of salmonella and related illnesses are on the rise, the number of people infected each year remains quite small.

Still, public health officials say, the risk is far greater than most realize. Many cases of food-borne illness are mild and go unreported. That’s no reason, however, to potentially expose millions of people to possible illness.

Banquet frozen pot pies are an example of what can go wrong, though it is not the only brand or product with a record of problems. The pies, produced by ConAgra Foods, are popular and relatively inexpensive. Americans bought about 100 million of them last year. Unfortunately for consumers, ConAgra waffles about the safety of the product. A lesson in history is in order.

Two years ago, about 15,000 people became ill with salmonella after consuming the frozen pies. Banquet officials and federal inspectors immediately tried to track down the cause, but were unable to do so. They checked each of the many ingredients — 25 in some cases — in the pies but could not specifically identify a cause. Then, the manufacturer took another step to promote safety.

They raised the temperature at which the pies were precooked. That process — called a “kill step” — is designed to kill any possible microbial pathogen. It worked, but the vegetables in the pies turned into mush in the process. The company said the high temperatures made the product “unpalatable,” In the case of a pot pie, that’s synonymous with unsaleable.

With profits at risk, the company decided to continue research for the elusive cause, but to continue marketing the product precooked at the lower temperature. The possibility of food poisoning was addressed by a change in packaging. Consumers are now told that “internal temperature needs to reach 165 degrees F as measured by a food thermometer in several spots.” Yeah, right.

How many people are going to read the instructions? Of those who do, how many have a thermometer suitable for the task and would take the time to test temperatures “in several spots.” Not many. Most people cook frozen pot pies until they’re hot and taste good. That might not be enough to kill possible contaminants.

ConAgra, to be fair, is not the only huge company traveling the same road. Nestle, the Blackstone Group, owners of the Swanson and Hungry-Man brands, and General Mills also expect consumers to police their own food. The Food and Drug Administration, charged with protecting America’s food supply, seems unable to stand up to industry pressure. It has failed to promote or require significant improvements in processed food safety.

The problems, to be sure, are myriad. Processors buy ingredients from a variety of global sources. Some are inspected, but others aren’t. Indeed, a survey by the New York Times showed that some companies don’t know the origin of all the ingredients they use.

Real risk of illness

Until all ingredients can be tracked to their source and tested, the possibility of contamination remains great. Enhanced cooking instructions — the antidote now favored by food processors — can’t overcome the real risk of illness.

There is hope for improvement. Congress seems ready to improve funding for the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, the nation’s first line of defense against food-borne illnesses. Consumers are increasingly savvy about food-related illnesses and shop accordingly. Some manufacturers, finally, seem to be getting the message. ConAgra, for example, is stepping up safety inspections.

Still, tougher safety precautions in the industry are far from universal. Americans are right to worry about the safety of foodstuffs in their freezer. Until all processors improve inspections and government regulations stiffen, the best advice is to cook frozen foods like pot pies to a temperature of at least 165 degrees in a conventional — not a microwave — oven. The illness you prevent might be your own.



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