Friday, May 15, 2009

Death By TV Dinner

There's a great article from the NY Times (via MSNBC) about the perils of processed foods. Not just the trans fat or the chemical preservatives or the high fructose corn syrup - it's the salmonella and the E. coli that'll kill ya.

The story focuses on a salmonella outbreak about two years ago from a specific brand of pot pie that sickened some 15,000 people, using it as an example to point out much larger issues in the food industry.

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 General Mills, NestlĂ© 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.

Remember the salmonella in the peanuts last year that was traced back to that sleezy company in Georgia that was supplying dozens of companies making hundreds of products? Remember the tainted salsa fiasco where they thought it was the tomatoes at first, and then maybe the peppers, or perhaps the onions - and meanwhile millions of tomatoes rotted in the fields?

It's a HUGE problem, but no one is doing anything about it because (you guessed it) it's too expensive.

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.”

I wonder - does all this make food safety an externality, even if they're externalizing the costs and risks to their own customers?

The article came with this entertaining video showing two people trying desperately to follow the four-part cooking instructions on a microwavable pot pie, but still failing to bring the thing up to sterile temperature.

My recommendation: LEARN TO COOK REAL FOOD!!

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