Cooking instructions on Aussie meat pie suck

Sometimes, I go for comfort food.

Occasionally, when the women are at their respective schools and there’s a National Hockey League final game on (at 10:20 a.m here) I’ll indulge in a frozen meat pie – a staple in Australia.

It cost $0.75 because I always buy things on clearance.

And I always use a tip-sensitive digital thermometer because I don’t trust the instructions and I don’t trust my microwave.

In 2007, ConAgra pot pies – the equivalent of an Australian meat pie — sickened at least 272 people in 35 U.S. states.

The company was told to change the cooking instructions and recommend that consumers use thermometers to verify.

meat.pie.label.15Maybe Australians haven’t heard about that one: sometimes the news takes awhile by steamship.

I followed the instructions in my man-cave this morning, and after resting, the temperature was 120F (49C) in the middle and 175F (79C) on the edges.

I heated some more.

Microwaves are good for reheating, terrible for uniform cooking.

And who knows if any verification has been done on these cooking instructions.

Tongue-testing dangerous: microwaves that heat unevenly can pose food safety problems

I expect companies like ConAgra and government agencies like the department of agriculture to blame consumers when their 50 cent pot pies make hundreds of people barf – just follow the instructions.

I don’t expect Consumer Reports to blame the consumer when microwave cooking makes people sick. But I have low expectations, especially of so-called consumer groups.

Consumer Reports latest tests of microwaves found fewer models that aced our evenness test.

When food isn’t cooked evenly to an internal temperature that kills harmful bacteria that might be present, illness can result, according to the USDA. So using a microwave that delivers even heating is important.

You’ll need to cook food longer if your microwave’s wattage is lower than the cooking instructions requires. Our Ratings indicate wattage, and you’ll find it on the serial number plate on the back of the microwave, inside the microwave door, or in the owner’s manual.

The USDA also recommends using a food thermometer to test food in several spots, but the survey found most people don’t, and nearly a third said nothing would change their mind. Using a food thermometer is a good idea, but at the very least, make sure there are no cold spots in your food.

How? With your tongue? Frozen foods that are going to be cooked in the microwave should contain pre-cooked ingredients.

Lousy food safety auditors put public and brands at risk

The voluntary quality control system widely used in the nation’s $1 trillion domestic food industry is rife with conflicts of interest, inexperienced auditors and cursory inspections that produce inflated ratings, according to food retail executives and other industry experts.

I’ve been saying that for a long time, but this is the Washington Post version, published this morning. I especially like the pictures of the Montgomery Burns Awards for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence, courtesy of AIB, the Manhattan, Kansas-based audiots that gave a stellar rating to PCA and Wright Eggs just prior to terrible food safety outbreaks and revelations of awful production conditions (see below).

The system has developed primarily because large chain stores and food producers, such as Kellogg’s, want assurances about the products they place on their shelves and the ingredients they use in making food. To get that, they often require that their suppliers undergo regular inspections by independent auditors. This all takes place outside any government involvement and without any signals – stamps of approval, for instance – to consumers. (That’s four-year-old Zoe Warren, right, of Bethesda, who was hospitalized in 2007 after contracting salmonella poisoning after eating a chicken pot pie. The photo is by Susan Biddle for the Washington Post.)

The third-party food safety audit scheme that processors and retailers insisted upon is, in many cases, no better than a financial Ponzi scheme. The vast number of facilities and suppliers means audits are required, but people have been replaced by paper.

In fact, most foodmakers, even those with problems, sail through their inspections, said Mansour Samadpour, who owns a food-testing firm that does not perform audits. "I have not seen a single company that has had an outbreak or recall that didn’t have a series of audits with really high scores.”

Third-party food audits, like restaurant inspection, are a snapshot in time. Given the international sourcing of ingredients, audits are a requirement, but so is internal food safety intelligence to make sense of audits that are useful and audits that are chicken poop.

Industry experts say some "third-party" inspections can be rigorous. Those that audit using internationally recognized private benchmarks "are much more thorough," said Robert Brackett, former senior vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "But they’re less likely to be used because they are much more expensive."

Audits, inspections, training and systems are no substitute for developing a strong food safety culture, farm-to-fork, and marketing food safety directly to consumers rather than the local/natural/organic hucksterism is a way to further reinforce the food safety culture.

Will Daniels, who oversees food safety for Earthbound Farm, the folks who brought E. coli O157:H7 in bagged spinach in 2006 that sickened 199 and killed four, said, Earthbound regularly received top ratings in third-party audits, including one exactly a month before the tainted spinach was processed, adding,

"No one should rely on third-party audits to insure food safety."

“… if the incentive is to pass with flying colors, it creates a disincentive to air your dirty laundry and get dinged and lose a customer over it.”

After the E. coli outbreak, Earthbound put in place an aggressive testing and safety program that includes outside audits but also requires Earthbound’s own inspectors to show up unannounced to check suppliers. The company tests its greens for pathogens when they arrive from farms and again when they are packaged.

Too bad Earthbound didn’t figure all this out after the 28 other outbreaks involving leafy greens prior to the deadly 2006 outbreak.

Cost is another factor.

Food companies often choose the cheapest auditors to minimize the added expense of inspections, which range from about $1,000 to more than $25,000.

The foodmakers can prepare for audits because they often know when inspectors will show up.

And auditors have a range of experience and qualifications, from recent college graduates to retired food industry veterans. They sometimes walk through a plant, ticking off a checklist to produce a score, Samadpour said. Basic inspections do not typically include microbial sampling for bacteria.

In a written response to questions, Brian Soddy, AIB‘s vice president of marketing and sales, said company audits are intended to give food manufacturers "guidance and education for improvement."

Producers have the ultimate responsibility, he said, adding that the audits are voluntary and not intended to replace any FDA regulatory inspections.
AIB said last week that it is reevaluating its "superior" and "excellent" rating systems because they "have led to confusion in the wake of recent incidents," Soddy wrote.

Some retailers include inspections as just one piece of their safety programs.

Costco, for example, has its own inspectors but also requires its estimated 4,000 food vendors to have their products inspected according to a detailed 10-page list of criteria. Private auditors must X-ray all products for "sticks and stones, bones in seafood – anything you can think of that might be in hot dogs, baked goods, outside of produce," said Craig Wilson, Costco’s assistant vice president for food safety and quality assurance.

Costco maintains an approved list of about nine audit firms. The list does not include AIB.

Wal-Mart requires suppliers of private-label food products sold in its stores and Sam’s Club to be audited using private internationally recognized standards.

In addition to conducting its own product testing, Giant Food requires its vendors to be audited from a list of about a dozen approved firms.

Protection against pot pies; blame the consumer – Ottawa style

There’s some sort of frozen chicken thingie outbreak going on in Ontario (that’s in Canada) but public health folks are dancing around the issue.

On June 22, 2010, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health said there was an increase in Salmonella Enteritidis cases across the province, and that a contributing factor was believed to be improper handling of food in the home, including inadequate cooking of breaded, processed chicken products, such as chicken strips, burgers and nuggets.

A public health type is now repeating the message that consumers need to do more with frozen chicken thingies instead of asking, WTF is salmonella doing in frozen chicken thingies?

Yesterday, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) advised residents of an increase in the number of salmonellosis cases reported in the city and is reminding residents to protect themselves by using safe food handling and cooking practices

Dr. Vera Etches, Associate Medical Officer of Health with OPH, said, "A significant number of these cases appear to be related to undercooked or inappropriately stored processed chicken products."

OPH is reminding residents to use safe food handling and cooking practices when preparing all food, and specifically, processed chicken products such as chicken strips, nuggets and burgers. These products are often sold frozen and although they may appear to be partially or fully cooked, many have not been heat treated to destroy bacteria such as salmonella.

At some point Ontario public health may stop blaming consumers who get sick from a microwaved chicken nugget and represent the folks they work for and ask:

• what is salmonella doing in these things;

• are the cooking instructions scientifically verified and clear; and,

• why is the consumer the critical control point on a frozen-looks-cooked-but-may-be-raw chicken thingie?

Blame the consumer, U.S.-style; ConAgra says silly things about its pot pies

ConAgra is continuing with its blame-the-consumer strategy when crappy pot pies make people sick with salmonella – like the 30 confirmed ill with Salmonella Chester linked to Marie Callender‘s Cheesy Chicken & Rice frozen meal.

Teresa Paulsen, a spokeswoman for ConAgra, said the company is investigating the contamination, adding,

"At this point, we are looking at an ingredient as the cause since all tests from our production environment have been negative.”

Some of the ingredients, in particular the protein such as the chicken, are precooked before packaging. She said the package has explicit instructions on how to cook the entree in a microwave or oven.

"If it’s cooked according to package instructions, any pathogen would be killed," she said.

Explicit is not the same as practical. No matter how much the Marie Callender name is supposed to fancy things up, it’s still a pot pie tweens toss in the microwave.

How effective are explicit instructions to teenagers? And why are people the critical control point in the frozen chicken thingie food safety system?

Seattle lawyer Bill Marler, who is representing an Oregon man who was hospitalized four days in May after eating one of the implicated pies, said, "You can’t expect the customer to be the kill step.”

A table of frozen, not-ready-to-eat chicken thingy outbreaks is available at:

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).

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.