Yesterday, the New York Times published an interesting, as well as disturbing, article on the continuing dangers of ConAgra frozen pot pies. Specifically, despite the 2007 outbreak and all the serious illnesses it caused, the safety of the pot pies still depend on the customer cooking them correctly. Apparently, the challenge of making the pot pies safe to eat, even if cooked to a temperature below what would constitute a "kill step," was simply too difficult. Here is how the NY Times described the decision:
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.”
For the full article, see www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/business/15ingredients.html
But getting a frozen-hard pot-pie to reach a uniform temperature of 165 degrees is by no means an easy thing to accomplish, as the Times article amply demonstrates.
But attempts by The New York Times to follow the directions on several brands of frozen meals, including ConAgra’s Banquet pot pies, failed to achieve the required 165-degree temperature. Some spots in the pies heated to only 140 degrees even as parts of the crust were burnt.
A ConAgra consumer hotline operator said the claims by microwave-oven manufacturers about their wattage power could not be trusted, and that any pies not heated enough should not be eaten. “We definitely want it to reach that 165-degree temperature,” she said. “It’s a safety issue.”
A safety issue indeed. Because if that pot pie is contaminated with a deadly pathogen, and the cooking process does not essentially pasteurize the pot pie, then eating will could be the real "kill-step" here.
For additional discussion, please click Continue Reading.
One of the issues really missed in the Times article–although it is one missed a lot, is the question of whether the real problem here is that ConAgra wants to be able to sell the pot pies, and do so profitably, for a price of 69 cents per pie. According to the article:
The company says the outbreak and management changes prompted it to undertake a broad range of safety initiatives, including testing for microbes in all of the pie ingredients. ConAgra said it was also trying to apply the kill step to as many ingredients as possible, but had not yet found a way to accomplish it without making the pies “unpalatable.”
Its Banquet pies now have some of the most graphic food safety instructions, complete with a depiction of a thermometer piercing the crust.
Pressed to say whether the meals are safe to eat if consumers disregard the instructions or make an error, Stephanie Childs, a company spokeswoman, said, “Our goal is to provide the consumer with as safe a product as possible, and we are doing everything within our ability to provide a safe product to them.”
Yes, they are going to do "everthing within [their] ability to provide a safe product" EXCEPT, that is, to raise the price to a point that would allow them to manufacture a product that did not require that consumers pasteurize the pot pie before eating it. So, yest the problem might be with the cooking instructions. And the problem might be with consumers not microwaving something along enough to constitute a "kill step" for the pot pie. But the REAL problem, that no one wants to talk about is this: You get what you pay for, including safety.