CSPI says food safety is Russian roulette; I prefer faith-based

Every time I’m interviewed about food safety stuff, the reporter will ask, “What can consumers do to protect themselves?”


It’s a lousy answer but often the truthiest one.

In that ConAgra Banquet Pot Pie outbreak that sickened 400 with Salmonella, Amy Reinert said she cooked the pot pie – at the time proclaiming ‘Ready in 4 minutes’ — for her daughter for 7 minutes in the microwave, then 10 minutes in a conventional oven to make the crust crispy. Yet Isabelle still got sick.

Now, the company says, consumers need to use a meat thermometer to ensure their 50-cent pot pie won’t make them barf.

These stories and more are covered in a food safety feature in the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Nutrition Action publication this month. It’s a comprehensive retelling of some food safety lowlights of the past four years that ends, as usual, with a bunch of things consumers can do to protect themselves.

I said,

“Everyone in industry and government says consumers have to do more, which is just silly. Controlling these kinds of contamination shouldn’t be a consumer problem. Producers and industry need to do better.”

The story is soft on spinach and leafy green producers – why did it take 29 outbreaks before industry took microbial food safety issues seriously – and appropriately harsh on the Ponzi scheme of food safety audits.

Mansour Samadpour said,

“These third-party inspections have become an industry that churns out meaningless certificates. Companies pay somebody $1,200 to come in and look at this paper and that paper and then give the company a certificate that says they passed by 96 percent.”

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 barfblog.com, 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.