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Food Companies Are Placing the Onus for Safety on Consumers

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.

Healthy Choice Frozen Food
Photo by: Tanya Patrice
Healthy Choice Frozen Food

The pie maker, ConAgra Foods, began spot-checking the vegetables for pathogens, but could not find the culprit. It also tried cooking the vegetables at high temperatures, a strategy the industry calls a “kill step,” to wipe out any lingering microbes. But the vegetables turned to mush in the process.

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.”

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.

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. General Mills, which recalled about five million frozen pizzas in 2007 after an E. coli outbreak, now advises consumers to avoid microwaves and cook only with conventional ovens. ConAgra has also added food safety instructions to its other frozen meals, including the Healthy Choice brand.

Peanuts were considered unlikely culprits for pathogens until earlier this year when a processing plant in Georgia was blamed for salmonella poisoning that is estimated to have killed nine people and sickened 27,000. Now, white pepper is being blamed for dozens of salmonella illnesses on the West Coast, where a widening recall includes other spices and six tons of frozen egg rolls.

The problem is particularly acute with frozen foods, in which unwitting consumers who buy these products for their convenience mistakenly think that their cooking is a matter of taste and not safety.

Federal regulators have pushed companies to beef up their cooking instructions with the detailed “food safety” guides. But the response has been varied, as a review of packaging showed. Some manufacturers fail to list explicit instructions; others include abbreviated guidelines on the side of their boxes in tiny print. A Hungry-Man pot pie asks consumers to ensure that the pie reaches a temperature that is 11 degrees short of the government-established threshold for killing pathogens. Questioned about the discrepancy, Blackstone acknowledged it was using an older industry standard that it would rectify when it printed new cartons.

Government food safety officials also point to efforts by the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a nonprofit group founded by the Clinton administration. But the partnership consists of a two-person staff and an annual budget of $300,000. Its director, Shelley Feist, said she has wanted to start a campaign to advise consumers about frozen foods, but lacks the money.

Estimating the risk to consumers is difficult. The industry says that it is acting with an abundance of caution, and that big outbreaks of food-borne illness are rare. At the same time, a vast majority of the estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness every year go unreported or are not traced to the source.

Home Cooking

Some food safety experts say they do not think the solution should rest with the consumer. Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said companies like ConAgra were asking too much. “I do not believe that it is fair to put this responsibility on the back of the consumer, when there is substantial confusion about what it means to prepare that product,” Dr. Osterholm said.

And the ingredient chain for frozen and other processed foods is poised to get more convoluted, industry insiders say. While the global market for ingredients is projected to reach $34 billion next year, the pressure to keep food prices down in a recession is forcing food companies to look for ways to cut costs.

Healthy Horizons -- A Special Report
Healthy Horizons -- A Special Report

Ensuring the safety of ingredients has been further complicated as food companies subcontract processing work to save money: smaller companies prepare flavor mixes and dough that a big manufacturer then assembles. “There is talk of having passports for ingredients,” said Jamie Rice, the marketing director of RTS Resource, a research firm based in England. “At each stage they are signed off on for quality and safety. That would help companies, if there is a scare, in tracing back.”

But government efforts to impose tougher trace-back requirements for ingredients have met with resistance from food industry groups including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which complained to the Food and Drug Administration: “This information is not reasonably needed and it is often not practical or possible to provide it.”

Testing the product

Now, in the wake of polls that show food poisoning incidents are shaking shopper confidence, the group is re-evaluating its position. A new industry guide produced by the group urges companies to test for salmonella and cites recent outbreaks from cereal, children’s snacks and other dry foods that companies have mistakenly considered immune to pathogens.

Research on raw ingredients, the 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.

While investigators who went to the plant were never able to pinpoint the salmonella source, inspectors for the United States Department of Agriculture focused on the vegetables, a federal inspection document shows.

ConAgra had not been requiring its suppliers to test the vegetables for pathogens, even though some were being shipped from Latin America. Nor was ConAgra conducting its own pathogen tests.

The company says the outbreak and management changes prompted it to undertake a broad range of safety initiatives, including testing for microbes in all of the pie ingredients. ConAgra said it was also trying to apply the kill step to as many ingredients as possible, but had not yet found a way to accomplish it without making the pies “unpalatable.”

Its Banquet pies now have some of the most graphic food safety instructions, complete with a depiction of a thermometer piercing the crust.

Pressed to say whether the meals are safe to eat if consumers disregard the instructions or make an error, Stephanie Childs, a company spokeswoman, said, “Our goal is to provide the consumer with as safe a product as possible, and we are doing everything within our ability to provide a safe product to them.”

“We are always improving food safety,” Ms. Childs said. “This is a long ongoing process.”

The U.S.D.A. said it required companies to show that their cooking instructions, when properly followed, would kill any pathogens. ConAgra says it has done such testing to validate its instructions.

Getting to ‘Kill Step’

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.

A ConAgra consumer hotline operator said the claims by microwave-oven manufacturers about their wattage power could not be trusted, and that any pies not heated enough should not be eaten. “We definitely want it to reach that 165-degree temperature,” she said. “It’s a safety issue.”

In 2007, the U.S.D.A.’s inspection of the ConAgra plant in Missouri found records that showed some of ConAgra’s own testing of its directions failed to achieve “an adequate lethality” in several products, including its Chicken Fried Beef Steak dinner. Even 18 minutes in a large conventional oven brought the pudding in a Kid Cuisine Chicken Breast Nuggets meal to only 142 degrees, the federal agency found.

Besides improving its own cooking directions, ConAgra says it has alerted other frozen food manufacturers to the food safety issues.

But in the absence of meaningful federal rules, other frozen-dinner makers that face the same problem with ingredients are taking varied steps, some less rigorous. Jim Seiple, a food safety official with the Blackstone unit that makes Swanson and Hungry-Man pot pies, said the company tested for pathogens, but only after preliminary tests for bacteria that were considered indicators of pathogens — a method that ConAgra abandoned after its salmonella outbreak.

The pot pie instructions have built-in margins of error, Mr. Seiple said, and the risk to consumers depended on “how badly they followed our directions.”

Some frozen food companies are taking different approaches to pathogens. Amy’s Kitchen, a California company that specializes in natural frozen foods, says it precooks its ingredients to kill any potential pathogens before its pot pies and other products leave the factory.

Using a bacteriological testing laboratory, The Times checked several pot pies made by Amy’s and the three leading brands, and while none contained salmonella or E. coli, one pie each of two brands — Banquet, and the Stouffer’s brand made by Nestlé — had significant levels of T. coliform.

These bacteria are common in many foods and are not considered harmful. But their presence in these products include raw ingredients and leave open “a potential for contamination,” said Harvey Klein, the director of Garden State Laboratories in New Jersey.

A Nestlé spokeswoman said the company enhanced its food safety instructions in the wake of ConAgra’s salmonella outbreak.

Danger in the Fridge

ConAgra’s episode has raised its visibility among victims like Ryan Warren, a 25-year-old law school student in Washington. A Seattle lawyer, Bill Marler, brought suit against ConAgra on behalf of Mr. Warren’s daughter Zoë, who had just turned 1 year old when she was fed a pot pie that he says put her in the hospital for a terrifying weekend of high fever and racing pulse.

“You don’t assume these dangers to be right in your freezer,” said Mr. Warren, who settled with ConAgra. He does not own a food thermometer and was not certain his microwave oven met the minimum 1,100-wattage requirement in the new pot pie instructions. “I do think that consumers bear responsibility to reasonably look out for their well-being, but the entire reason for this product to exist is for its convenience.”

Public health officials who interviewed the Warrens and other victims of the pot-pie contamination found that fewer than one in three knew the wattage of their microwave ovens, according to the C.D.C. report on the outbreak. The report notes, however, that nearly one in four of the victims reported cooking their pies in conventional ovens.

For more than a decade, the U.S.D.A. has also sought to encourage consumers to use food thermometers. But the agency’s statistics on how many Americans do so are discouraging. According to its Web site, not quite half the population has one, and only 3 percent use it when cooking high-risk foods like hamburgers. No data was available on how many people use thermometers on pot pies.