ConAgra spends a fortune on advertizing – how about food safety?

ConAgra CEO thingy Gary Rodkin is on a quest

A quest to find what he calls "the big, singular insight that will drive behavior change." If he can do that, he can boost the bottom line (which was $978 million on revenue of $12.7 billion in the fiscal year ended May 31). Rodkin is using theories about buying habits–backed by $399 million a year in advertising, marketing and in-store promotions–to convince grocery stores to provide ample shelves for its 45 consumer brands, which include Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, Hebrew National, Wesson and Swiss Miss.

I have a suggestion. Don’t make people barf, with your Banquet pot pies and your peanut butter. Seriously, $399 million in advertising, and you can’t promise people they won’t barf?

And the best guest speaker you can get is me naked in New Zealand (cost to ConAgra bottom line – nothing).

Pot pies are back: new labels, same problems

Guess what I found at my local supermarket last week.

ConAgra announced Nov. 14, 2007, that it was starting to manufacture Banquet pot pies again, and earlier last week, they were available for purchase.

On Oct. 11, 2007, ConAgra announced it was recalling all of its frozen pot pies to fix some label discrepancies. This was two days after an outbreak of Salmonella was linked to Banquet pot pies and the company reassuringly told consumers that getting sick was their own fault and they should be more careful and cook pot pies thoroughly.

In the end, at least 272 people in 35 states had trouble simply cooking the pot pies and got sick with salmonella.

As I documented before, the instructions on the pot pies weren’t so great.

The old labels had statements about how easy it was to cook in the microwave. The new labels are much more explicit, saying the pot pies need to be cooked in at least a 1100 Watt microwave and that a meat thermometer should be used in several places to ensure that an endpoint temperature of 165 F has been reached.

The best the bureaucrats at the British and Irish food safety authorities can come up with is "piping hot" to cook an entire turkey, while American ConAgra expects teenage kids full of hormones and horniness to test pot pies with a meat thermometer in several places so they won’t barf from Salmonella.

It’s not going to happen.

And there’s a risk.

I bought some of the new and improved pot pies and did the same cooking experiment, following what ConAgra called " redesigned easy-to-follow cooking instructions … to help eliminate any potential confusion regarding cooking times."

After four minutes in a 1150 Watt microwave, the interior of the pot pie registered at about 50F. After letting it sit for an additional three minutes — as per label instructions – the temperature varied anywhere from 75 – 190 F.

I decided to cook an additional two minutes.

After six minutes of cooking, and the previous three minutes of resting, the pot pie had tremendous variation in temperature: anywhere from 200F down to 100F.  165 F is required to kill Salmonella.

I wouldn’t want my kids popping these in the microwave after school.

ConAgra has never come clean on which various ingredients may have been the source of the Salmonella. Was it the poultry? How about the vegetables? The pie crust? ConAgra won’t say.

Further, were the new labels tested with consumers? If I was a multi-million dollar corporation like ConAgra headed to a dance with food safety lawyer Bill Marler cause my product made people barf, I’d want some evidence that pot pie fans where actually following the instructions on the labels. I would have tested the new labels with at least 100 teenagers afflicted with hormones and horniness before introducing it to the mass market.

Maybe they did. But that’s up to ConAgra to prove.

And until they do, all products that claim to be safe in the microwave should contain nothing but fully cooked ingredients.

That’s the only way to get the poop out.

USA Today reported on the new pot pies Monday morning.

Did your microwave nuke the bacteria?

N.Y. Times business columnist Andrew Martin writes in Sunday’s paper (Oct. 14/07) that he’s gotten used to the idea that hamburgers can make you sick. But frozen dinners?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says at least 165 people in 31 states have become ill with the same strain of salmonella, with the Banquet pot pies being the likely source.

Martin says,
"it is relatively easy to figure out when a hamburger is well done by checking to see that it is no longer pink."

Uh-oh. Color is a lousy indicator of doneness. But more about that in upcoming weeks.

Martn continues,

"it’s preposterous to expect consumers to know how the cooking power of their microwave compares with others."

Douglas Powell, an associate professor and scientific director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University said,

"Even if I have a 1,000-watt microwave, how do I know if it’s high, medium or low?"

Professor Powell bought one of the pot pies and cooked it, following the instructions, then checked the temperature with a thermometer.

After four minutes, the pie was 48 degrees, leading him to conclude his microwave was low wattage. After six minutes, it was 204 degrees near the top but 127 degrees farther into the pie.

He finally ate it after zapping it for another two minutes, when the pie temperature was 194 degrees. (An account of the experiment is at

Martin further says,

with the proliferation of ready-to-cook foods in the frozen foods aisle, the variation in the cooking times is a little scary. Is it long enough to kill the bugs, even if my microwave is 15 years old?

ConAgra Foods finally came to its senses on Thursday night and recalled all of its pot pies. It also acknowledged problems with its cooking instructions.

Cooking the poop out of pot pies

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

Kids come home from school, are told to fend for themselves, grab something from the freezer, pop it into the microwave, and sometimes, instant gratification.

People have been eating frozen pot pies for a long time and haven’t gotten sick.

But somehow, a whole pile of poop  — that’s where salmonella comes from — got into the batch of ConAgra Banquet turkey and chicken pot pies with the code P9 on the side panel.

It was either a failure to cook the meat, or it was in the potatoes or carrots or flour. Poop is everywhere. It should not be eaten; unless it’s cooked.

Until last night, when ConAgra finally recalled all pot pies produced at its Missouri plant, the company insisted it was up to consumers to cook that poop.

But are consumers really the ones who are supposed to be responsible here?

Stephanie Childs, a spokesperson for ConAgra, says that as long as consumers follow the instructions on the package, Banquet brand frozen pot pies are safe to eat.

Amy questions that. So do the 152 people across the U.S. confirmed with Salmonella linked to the ConAgra pot pies. With that many sick people, of which 20 required hospitalization, there were probably thousands of people barfing or planted on the porcelain throne because they could not figure out how to follow the simple instructions to make the poop safe.

So I gave it a try.

The details are available at:

The short version is, the cooking instructions, for me, in one trial, failed to yield a safe internal temperature of 165F; the pie only got to 148F. That’s not safe. If salmonella was there, it would make me poop.

ConAgra was somehow allowed to blame consumers for several days — if not months — for the poop in their pot pies.

Now ConAgra says it is going to rewrite its cooking instructions on its pot pie packaging — something that should have done before 152 people started barfing.

But why just pot pies? There is a cacophony of frozen, raw or cooked products available in the supermarket freezer section, and there have been several outbreaks of foodborne illness related to those products containing raw ingredients.

In 2006 the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued guidelines requiring companies to clearly label uncooked products and include a statement such as "must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F as measured by use of a thermometer" in a prominent spot on the package.

But it’s still confusing. Raw, frozen, chicken strips, for instance, are sold side-by-side with fully cooked, frozen chicken strips. Kids looking for an after-school snack may not read the label instructions before popping something in the microwave. And telling consumers to cook out the poop may not be the best marketing strategy.

Frozen products like nuggets, strips and pot pies should only contain fully cooked ingredients.

Douglas Powell is scientific director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University.

Cooking a frozen pot pie in a microwave

This is a ConAgra Banquet turkey pot pie Amy and I purchased the evening of Oct. 9, 2007 and kept in the freezer. It had the P-9 code on the side — the ones implicated in the Salmonella outbreak —  and on sale, 2-for-$1.

This is me in our kitchen on Monday Oct. 8, preparing Thanksgiving (Canadian) chicken for guests. Note the white microwave in the back left corner.

This is our GE Turntable microwave oven cooking the turkey pot pie at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2007. I have no idea what the wattage is.

The front of the pot pie package includes statements such as:

Ready in 4 minutes; microwavable

The microwave cooking instructions on the back state:
For food safety and quality, follow these cooking directions:
Microwave Oven
(fine print: Ovens vary; cooking time may need to be adjusted.)
1. Place tray on microwave-safe plate; slit top crust.
I could not slit the top crust. It was frozen solid.
2. Microwave on High.
(Med. OR High Wattage Microwave 4 mins.
Low Wattage Microwave 6 mins).

This is the turkey pot pie after 4 minutes on high in the microwave. I was able to slit the crust. The temperature stabilized around 48 F. I must have a low wattage microwave.

The is the turkey pot pie after 6 minutes on high in the microwave. Near the surface, the temperature registers at 204 F (left). However, the temperature lowered as I moved the probe to the center. Temperature approximately 127 F (right).

The microwave cooking instructions also state:

3. Let Stand 3 minutes. Carefully remove as Product will be hot.

After 3 standing for 3 minutes the interior of the pot pie reaches 148 F. The recommended safe end-point temperature for poultry is 165 F.

This is the pot pie after 6 minutes in the microwave on high, standing for 3 minutes, followed by an additional 2 minutes in the microwave on high; 194 F.

I eat the pot pie.

This is completely anecdotal and in no way representative. However, as my research colleague Randy Phebus just posted on

"Why any food product containing raw ingredients of any kind (actually, in this case the chicken cubes were fully cooked, but the veggies and dough were not) would have microwaving as a primary preparation procedure, particularly when starting from a completely frozen state. Microwave heating of this type of product would no doubt be variable, and particularly when you look at all the different types of microwave ovens out there. Perhaps the message that we should be spreading is that microwaves should only be used to heat pre-cooked products. Then, we also need to address the almost universal ambiguity in prep instructions on food packages.  What do consumers really understand, or better what do they not understand, about these written label instructions?  One other important bit…are the label instructions always properly validated for their food safety effectiveness in the first place?"

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 For more information on food safety, consumers may reference"

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


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:
On the image of the potpie:
 Ready in 4 minutes
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.’"