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Danger lurks in home freezer

Danger lurks in home freezer - 36 Tuesday o 0 OF ‘...

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Unformatted text preview: 36 . Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - o 0 OF ‘ thattannnga @imrg ; Established 1869 Adolph S. Ochs, Publisher 18784-1935 ToM GRJSCOM Publisher 86 Executive Editor I HARRY AUSTIN EditOrial Page Editor WES HASDEN . Associate Editor EDITORIALS .- ' 1 Danger lurks 1n home freezer ou’d think that the recent rise in the ' number "of Sometimes deadly food— borne illnesses would prOrnpt man— ufacturers of processed foods and federal agencies to do all in their power to enhance public safety. Not so. In the case of the food companies, at least, they’re shirking the responsibility.- Rather than boost efforts to prevent pathogens,j they’re conceding they can’t guarantee the safety of processed foods and telling consum— - ers that they’re responsible for making sure the food they consume is safe to eat. That’s a bad idea. . , If corporations with large stafls, big bud- gets and access to the latest scientific infor- mation and equipment can’t identify what causes food—home illness, then consumers , are unlikely to be able to do so. Iris, for those who remember their high school Latin, a particularly egregious and dangerous case of “caveat emptor” —- let the buyer beware. Calculated business decision For the food companies, the decision to place the burden of food safety on the con-r sumer is a calculated business decision. They apparently assume that consumers will con— tinue to buy their products, either mitigate or ignore the risk of possible illness and allow profits to continue. In a sense, the companies aren’t exposing themselves to much risk. While the number of salmonella and related . illnesses are on the. rise, the number of people infected each year remains quite small. Still, public health officials say, the risk is far greater than most realize. Many cases . of food-borne illness are mild and go unre- ported. That’s no reason, however, to poten— _ tially expose millions of people to possible illness. ' Banquet frozen pot pies are an example of what can'go' Wrong, though it is not the only brand or product With, a record of problems. The pies, produced by ConAgra Foods, are popular and relatively inexpensive. Ameri- cans bought. about 100 million of them last. year. Unfortunately for consumers, ConAgra waffles about the safety of the product. A [les- son in history is in order. ' Two years ago, about 15,000 people became , ill with salmonella after consuming the frozen ‘ pies. Banquet officials and federal inspectors immediately tried to track down the cause, but were unable to do so.- They‘checked each of the many ingredients ~— 25 in some cases . — in the pies but Could not specifically iden- tify' a cause. Then, the manufacturer took another Step to promote safety. ' They raised the temperature at which the pies were precooked. That process —- called? a “kill step” —. is'design‘ed to kill any pos- sible microbial pathogen. It worked, but the vegetables in the pies turned into mush in the process. The company said the high tem- peratures made the product “unpalatable.” In the case of a pot pie, that’s synonymous With unsaleable. With profits at risk, the company decided to continue research for the elusive cause but to continue marketing the product precooked at the lower temperature. The possibility of food poisoning was addressed by a change in packaging. Consumers are now told that “internal temperature needs to reach 165 - degrees F as measured by a food thermom- eter in several spots.” Yeah, right. . How many people are going to read the instructions? Of those who do, howlmany have a thermometer suitable for the task and would take the time to test temperatures “in several spots.” Not many. Most people cook frozen pot pies until they’re hot and taste good. That might not be enough to kill pos- Sible contaminants. ConAgra, to be fair, is not the only huge company traveling the same road. Nestle, ‘ the Blackstone GrOup, owners of the Swan- son and Hungry—Man brands, and General Mills also expect consumers to police their own food. The Food and'Drug Administra— tion, charged with protecting America’s food supply, seems unable to stand up to industry pressure. It has failed to promote or require significant improvements in processed food safety. ‘ The problems, to be sure, are myriad. Processors buy ingredients frOm a variety of global sources. Some are inspected, but others aren’t. Indeed, a survey by the New York Times showed that some companies don’t know the origin of all theflingredients they use. ' ' Real risk of illness '_ Until all ingredients can be tracked to their source and tested, the possibility .of contam- ination remains great. Enhanced cooking instructions — the antidote now favored by food processors —-—- can’t overcome the real risk of illness. - . There is hope for improvement. Con- gress seems ready to improve funding for the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, the nation’s first line of defense againstfood- borne illnesses. Consumers are increasingly savvy about food-related illnesses and shop accordingly. Some manufacturers, finally, seem to be getting the message. COnAgra, for example, is stepping up safety inspections. Still, tougher safety precautions in the industry are far from universal. Americans are right to worry aboirt the safety of food— stuffs in their freezer. Until all processors improve inspections and government regula- tions stiffen, the best advice is to cook frozen foods like pot pies to a temperature of at least 165 degrees in a conventional —- not a microwave — oven. The illness you prevent might be your own. ...
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