Food safety for people who don’t cook: stop blaming consumers

The N.Y. Times asked me to comment on the food safety feature running this morning as part of their electronic Room for Debate section.

Douglas Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University and the editor of, writes:

ConAgra Foods said on Nov. 14, 2007 when it reintroduced pot pies that, “… redesigned easy-to-follow cooking instructions are now in place to help eliminate any potential confusion regarding cooking times.”

I tried to them out at the time and found the instructions inadequate.

Were the new labels tested with consumers? Is there evidence from ConAgra that pot pie fans were actually following the instructions on the labels? If the company was serious about making sure the instructions worked, it should have tested the new labels with at least 100 teenagers in observational studies to prove that a target market could actually follow the instructions before introducing the product to the mass market.

The instructions direct consumers to use a food thermometer to test the temperature. But it appears that bimetallic thermometers (traditional kitchen thermometers) are used on both the ConAgra label and in the Times video; these thermometers yield inaccurate readings. For a more accurate reading, consumers would have to use digital, tip-sensitive thermometers.

Food safety isn’t simple – it’s hard. For decades, consumers have been blamed for foodborne illnesss – with unsubstantiated statements like, “the majority of foodborne illness happens in the home.” Yet increasingly the outbreaks in foods like peanut butter, pot pies, pet food, pizza, spinach and tomatoes have little to do with how consumers handle the food.

Everyone from farm-to-fork has a food safety responsibility, but putting the onus on consumers for processed foods or fresh produce is disingenuous — especially for those who profit from the sale of these products.