Preparing pot pies and blaming consumers

The N.Y. Times repeated my year-and-a-half-old home-alone reporting and video shoot with ConAgra pot pies and other frozen thingies in a front-page feature this morning and reached the same conclusion: the cooking directions suck.

(BTW, the Times video accompanying Friday’s story also sucks, and they appear to use the wrong kind of thermometer — always be tip-sensitive)

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.

Threatened with a federal shutdown, the pie maker, ConAgra Foods, began spot-checking the vegetables for pathogens, but could not find the culprit. …

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.”

… 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.

And in a staggering example of corporate arrogance coupled with blame-the-consumer, Jim Seiple, a food safety official with the Blackstone unit that makes Swanson and Hungry-Man pot pies, said pot pie instructions have built-in margins of error, and the risk to consumers depended on

“how badly they followed our directions.”

That’s assuming people can read, that they can read English, that the instructions are microbiologically validated and that the instructions are clear – meaning there has been direct or video observation of consumers attempting to cook following the instructions.