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Report Says Frozen Food Safety Difficult to Guarantee

May 15, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP
Salmonella ConAgra Food Frozen Pot Pie

Frozen Food Makers Cannot Guarantee The Safety of Their Products

It seems frozen food manufacturers have started placing the burden for food safety on their customers.  An article in the New York Times reports that  frozen food makers are doing so because they cannot guarantee the safety of their own products.

According to The New York Times, the 2007 Salmonella outbreak linked to ConAgra Food's frozen pot pies highlighted how difficult it is for food manufacturers to make sure frozen foods are safe.  As we reported at the time, ConAgra’s Banquet and store brand pot pies sickened nearly 401 people in 41 states.   

About three quarters of the  people sickened in the outbreak had reported that the pies they consumed were microwaved.  These victims may have been sickened because the pies were not heated in a way that would kill off all Salmonella bacteria. In December 2007, ConAgra changed what it called "confusing" microwave cooking instructions on the pot pie packaging. In addition to pot pies, Con Agra modified cooking instructions for its other frozen food lines, including popular  Healthy Choice and Kid Cuisine varieties.

Now, The New York Times is reporting that companies like ConAgra have found it difficult to guarantee that frozen foods won't make people sick.  In the case of the ConAgra recall, it was never determined what element of the pies was the original source of bacteria.  Because the supply chain for the meats, vegetables, and other ingredients needed to make frozen foods is so huge, the Times said that it is pretty much impossible to guarantee that no single ingredient will be tainted.

Food Makers Adding Detailed Cooking Instructions

So now, ConAgra and other food makers have decided that consumers should be responsible for the products they sell.  They are doing this by adding more detailed cooking instructions.  For example, as the Times pointed out, ConAgra's instructions for its frozen pot pies now read  “Internal temperature needs to reach 165° F as measured by a food thermometer in several spots."

But as The New York Times reports, these new detailed instructions are not always helpful.  For example, directions for Hungry Man frozen dinners instruct cooking to a temperature that is 11 degrees short of the government threshold for killing pathogens.

What's more, cooking tests the Times conducted on ConAgra pot pies and other frozen foods showed how difficult it can be to reach 165° even when directions on a package are carefully followed.  One test of ConAgra pot pies found that  spots in the pies heated to only 140°, even after some of the crust was burnt.

In light of all this, some consumer advocates don't agree with the frozen food industry's attempt to shift safety responsibility to consumers.

One expert, Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota,  told the Times that food makers are 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,” Osterholm said.

Need Legal Help Regarding Recalled Pot Pie?

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