Yesterday, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a largely useless, but still widely published, news release entitled “Independence Day: Drills for the Grill.” See News Release, While notable for a cheery and reassuring tone, the information provided is, at best, unhelpful, and, at worst, is dangerously misleading. In addition to providing little in the way of substantive food safety information about how to “safely” grill a burger, the FSIS news release deceitfully soft-pedals the real risks posed by ground beef, generally, and outdoor grilling in particular. For example, the new release clumps together hamburgers, steak, chicken, hot dogs, and ribs as if all can be treated in the same way, and pose the same relative risk—which is blatantly false. And also, how can anyone at FSIS expect to educate the public about safely grilling ground beef (the real risk here) without once mentioning E. coli O157:H7, the primary risk?

  Take, for example, the introductory quote from FSIS Administrator, Alfred V. Almanza, who states: “Safe food handling is always important, but during the warm summer months — peak grilling season — there is an increased need for awareness of safe food handling practices.” Well, Mr. Almanza, why is that? Could it be because numerous research studies have shown that the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in cattle rises significantly during the spring, and peaks during the summer months? See, e.g., Edrington, et al, 2006. Seasonal shedding of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in ruminants: a new hypothesis. Foodborne Pathog Dis 3:413-21; Hancock, et al., 1994. The prevalence of Escherichia coli O157.H7 in dairy and beef cattle in Washington State. Epidemiol Infect 113:199-207; Hancock, et al., 1997. A longitudinal study of Escherichia coli O157 in fourteen cattle herds. Epidemiol Infect 118:193-5; and Hussein, et al., 2005. Prevalence of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli in beef cattle. J Food Prot 68:2224-41.  Why not level with the public and tell them that ground beef simply tends to be more dangerous in the summer, and that is when a higher than average percentage of E. coli O157:H7 infections occur?  Of course, that might make the USDA look bad, and could further depress the sales of ground beef.

(Please click on Continue Reading to view the rest of this article.)Continue Reading How to Safely Cook a Burger (NOT according to the USDA)

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

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.Continue Reading Giving New Meaning to the Term “Kill Step”