Sunday, May 17, 2009
Enjoy your salmonella pot pie
by Larry Geller
A scary article from the New York Times, Food Companies Are Placing the Onus for Safety on Consumers (May 14, 2009) should be of particular concern to Hawaii consumers. Because of the length of the distribution chain, by the time food gets to us, any little buggers hitchhiking along have had a chance to party and prosper. Like flying here on United used to be, free drinks, Hawaiian music, you remember.
Take the frozen pot pie which the New York Times highlights (no, wait…). In 2007, according to the article, 15,000 people were sickened by pies contaminated with salmonella.
The pie maker, ConAgra Foods, began spot-checking the vegetables for pathogens, but could not find the culprit.
So what did ConAgra Foods do? They continued to ship pies (with salmonella and all?) but asked consumers to kill the little buggers:
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.”
Somehow this does not give me much confidence. Heck, the idea of a 69-cent pie is to throw it in the microwave and gobble it down real fast. You don’t expect much from it. I don’t think many people will carry a food thermometer to the office lunchroom or want to spend time poking it around “in several spots.” At least they could define “several.” There should be some confidence that the food is safe to begin with, and then yes, we should take reasonable precautions.
The article highlights this company’s product, but apparently the problem of contaminated food is pervasive in this country:
Increasingly, the corporations that supply Americans with processed foods are unable to guarantee the safety of their ingredients. In this case, ConAgra could not pinpoint which of the more than 25 ingredients in its pies was carrying salmonella. Other companies do not even know who is supplying their ingredients, let alone if those suppliers are screening the items for microbes and other potential dangers, interviews and documents show.
The 90% or so of the food we eat in Hawaii travels a long and perhaps perilous path. By the time it ends up in our shopping basket it may be considerably older than it was when it left the factory. And along the way, the chances that it has been out of refrigeration or improperly frozen increase simply because of the distance (you did know that most milk shipped to Hawaii isn’t even refrigerated, right?).
Yet the supply chain for ingredients in processed foods — from flavorings to flour to fruits and vegetables — is becoming more complex and global as the drive to keep food costs down intensifies. As a result, almost every element, not just red meat and poultry, is now a potential carrier of pathogens, government and industry officials concede.
In addition to ConAgra, other food giants like Nestlé and the Blackstone Group, a New York firm that acquired the Swanson and Hungry-Man brands two years ago, concede that they cannot ensure the safety of items — from frozen vegetables to pizzas — and that they are shifting the burden to the consumer
The problem cannot be blamed only on manufacturers. State and federal regulations don’t protect us. As an illustration, I was dismayed to find heavy sediment on the bottom of the little bottles of Knudsen’s cranberry juice concentrate bought from our usual health food store. Stirring it into some water instead of discarding it produced an unpleasant drink. The little bottle has no date marked on it. Had there been a date, I would expect to find that the bottles on the shelf were quite old. At least, I would have information I need to decide whether to spend almost $12 on it.
So I ordered a dozen to be shipped by mail from the Continent. Not only did I save money, but the concentrate has no sediment at all. None. It tastes great.
Our local stores are often sloppy with “sell by” dates. For example, in April, at a Star Market, I found that the dairy product I was looking for had expired about two weeks earlier. While waiting for the store person to check in the back to see if there was anything newer, I picked up a little package of fig cake to check the ingredients and see if I might want to invest. It looked good, but the product had expired in January. When the guy came back I showed it to him. He cleaned the expired dairy stuff and fig stuff off the shelf. We’re talking about 15 or so items. Trouble is, of course, that had I not brought it to his attention, it might still be there.
I’ve seen soy drink on sale at a health food store. Checking the date stamped on the top, it had expired. When I brought that to the attention of someone, they did nothing.
So yeah, it’s up to us to cook our food properly and check expiration dates, but on the other hand, I don’t expect to buy toxic food that I’m supposed to sterilize before eating, or that is so old it has lost nutritive value and taste.
Hawaii consumers have a choice, though few will follow it: support our local farmers. Buy at the real farmers markets and make food from scratch. Make your own pizza, it tastes better than frozen anyway. Cook on the weekend and put away meals for busy evenings during the work week.
Few will do that. The supermarkets exist for the masses who want fast, microwaveable meals and are spending their food money for convenience. There should be sufficient regulation to protect them. As we know, regulation has been lax. It’s not working.
Research on raw ingredients, [an industry] guide notes, has found salmonella in 0.14 percent to 1.3 percent of the wheat flour sampled, and up to 8 percent of the raw spices tested.
ConAgra’s pot pie outbreak began on Feb. 20, 2007, and by the time it trailed off nine months later 401 cases of salmonella infection had been identified in 41 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimates that for every reported case, an additional 38 are not detected or reported.
It took until June 2007 for health officials to discover the illnesses were connected, and in October they traced the salmonella to Banquet pot pies made at ConAgra’s plant in Marshall, Mo.
The steps marked on that pot pie which place the responsibility on consumers to kill the little buggers don’t work anyway, according to the New York Times article:
But 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.
Do you know the wattage of your microwave oven? No? Well, the pot pies have a minimum requirement. Most people will have no idea what the power of their microwave ovens is. And the article mentions that a fourth of the salmonella victims cooked their pies in conventional ovens anyway.
I’m surprised that there is little reaction from the public to the periodic contamination scares. In Hawaii, we continue to import milk unrefrigerated. It’s re-pasteurized, so it’s most likely safe enough, but whatever the little buggers did in the milk on their long journey over here remains, and it certainly can’t taste the same as fresher milk purchased elsewhere in the country.
Reforming commercial producers might be hard to do. We can and should vote with our wallets and buy local, wholesome, preferably organic, food products. In many cases it’s cheaper anyway, and nothing beats the snap of a freshly picked crisp red bell pepper as you bite into it (compared to the limp imported product from the supermarket). Cauliflower not only tastes better but is cheaper in the farmers market. The kale and salad greens you can buy on Saturday at KCC were just picked, and the farmer is there to answer your questions on how it is raised.
Buy direct and save money over Whole Foods. Enjoy the bounty of fresh taste, nutrition and good health that we can raise by ourselves even in middle of the Pacific Ocean.