Food Safety

May 15, 2009

The New York Times reports that the makers of processed foods are less and less able to guarantee the safety of their products. Pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella have been linked to many different ingredients, including flour, nuts, spices, vegetables, and, of course, meat. Increasingly these producers are using labels to put the burden of safety on the consumer, who is instructed to carry out the “kill step,” i.e., sufficiently heating the product to kill pathogens:

“…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.”

And here we see a principal problem with informed consent: how well do you think these dangers and responsibilities are communicated to the consumer? And what are the odds that consumers will use thermometers to properly measure food temperatures, or forego the use of microwave ovens?

The NY Times tried it out themselves:

“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.'”

Apparently the burden of testing the wattage of the microwave oven is on the consumer as well.

Again, this particular product costs 69 cents.

In general, I’m all in favor of personal responsibility. But the general public is poorly equipped to perform safety control on their food products, and the idea of consumers checking the temps of different parts of a 69-cent pot pie with a cooking thermometer is patently ridiculous. And exactly how well do consumers understand that bacteria in these products have killed people and have sickened many more?

Food safety is a basic responsibility of government, and one of the many areas in which the Republican small-government fetish rings hollow. It’s a task performed far more efficiently and effectively by the government than by consumers, and citizens expect their government to carry out this function. Yet the food-safety bureaucracies are seriously underfunded, and producers and importers are under-regulated. This allows pot pies to be sold in the market for the low price of 69 cents, but leads to the absurd circumstance of consumers being urged to perform the “kill step” on their foods (mmmmm, appetizing).

Some functions of the government such as product safety or infrastructure are not just good ideas but are necessary. Whenever politicians and pundits decide to whine about “big government,” someone really needs to get out there with a reminder of all the important government functions like making sure our food isn’t loaded with deadly germs that don’t immediately come to people’s minds when the bellyaching starts about where our tax money goes.

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