No kitty, this is my pot pie

Amy says she ate a lot of pot pies growing up in Montana and "they were always frozen in the middle."

After a brief story yesterday in Idaho speculating that several local salmonella cases may be linked to undercooked chicken pot pies, and a blog this morning by uber attorney, Bill Marler, suddenly the U.S. Department of Agriculture announces this afternoon that its

"Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is investigating a Missouri establishment that on October 9 voluntarily ceased operations due to reported illnesses linked to their products. Banquet brand and generic store brand frozen not-ready-to-eat pot pie products with "P-9" printed on the side of the package may be the potential source of reported illnesses caused by Salmonella based on epidemiological evidence collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and State public health departments.

The Agency is advising consumers not to eat or to discard these chicken or turkey pot pie products until we are able to determine the source, products and potential production dates of contamination and to verify proper cooking instructions for these not-ready-to-eat products. We will provide updates as further information becomes available."

ConAgra issued its own press release, stating,

"The company reminds consumers that these products are not ready-to-eat, and must always be thoroughly cooked as instructed on the packages. The cooking instructions for these products are specifically designed to eliminate the presence of common pathogens found in many uncooked products. Microwave cooking times vary, depending on the wattage of the microwave, so carefully following all instructions is important.

"Consumers with questions regarding the cooking of Banquet pot pies may call 1-866-484-8671 or contact us online at www.conagrafoods.com/contactus. For more information on food safety, consumers may reference IFIC.org."

The most recent news has 135 people sick in 35 states, and maybe as many as 200, going back to March of this year.

Wow.

So Amy and I went to the local supermarket after dinner. We found the products in question, with the P-9 on the side, and on sale, 2-for-$1.

I called the number suggested by ConAgra (see above). After listening to a recorded message, I spoke with a human, who wanted to know my name, zip code, state, and when she got to address, I said, I just want to know how to properly cook these in the microwave, cause the press release says they’re safe if cooked properly.

The human hung up.

Amy and I then examined the ingredient list, which included cooked chicken, and mechanically deboned chicken — but did not specify whether the meat was coked or not. So maybe there is raw poultry in the pot pies, which could be a source of salmonella, or maybe it’s all cooked but there was a failure in reaching 165F. Don’t know at this point.

And then there’s the cooking instructions, which ConAgra says to follow carefully.

On the front in big capital letters, bottom left:
KEEP FROZEN
COOK THOROUGHLY
 
On the image of the potpie:
 Ready in 4 minutes
Microwaveable
 
On the back:
For food safety and quality, follow these cooking directions:

Microwave Oven
(fine print: Ovens vary; cooking time may need to be adjusted.)
Place tray on microwave-safe plate; slit top crust.
Microwave on High.
(Med. OR High Wattage Microwave 4 mins.
Low Wattage Microwave 6 mins).
 
Let Stand 3 minutes. Carefully remove as Product will be hot.
 
Conventional Oven
(fine print: Do not prepare in toaster oven.)
 
Preheat oven to 400F. Place tray on cookie sheet, slit top crust.
Bake in oven 30 to 32 minutes.
Carefully remove as Product will be hot. Let Stand 5 minutes.)
(fine print: Temperatures above 400F and/or failure to use a cookie sheet may cause damage to the paper tray, food and/or oven.)

 
Assuming I’ve got an urge for a chicken pot pie, and assuming I’ve read the label, I don’t know the wattage of my microwave. I don’t know how heat is dispersed throughout the microwave. I want to see the validation studies that verify the cooking instructions. In the meantime, the only way to verify safety is to use a digital, tip-sensitive thermometer and cook to 165F.

Or as William Keene, a state epidemiologist with the Oregon Public Health Division told the Statesman Journal this evening,

"Even though salmonella infections can be prevented by thorough cooking, the bacteria can survive undercooking or uneven cooking such as from microwaves.

‘I wouldn’t want to take that chance; I’d just throw it out.’"