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Wednesday, June 3, 2009 06:16 am

Eliminating the threat of ‘death by pie’

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Out in Arizona, an old tombstone bears an epitaph for a young gunslinger: “I was expecting this/But not so soon.”

Gunslinging, of course, is a high-risk business. But today, some of us can expect to have the following marker on our graves: “Here lies a guy/Killed by a potpie.”

America’s potpie threat lurks in an ingredient that today’s producers of frozen foods don’t list on their packages: salmonella. In just one salmonella outbreak in 2007, the Banquet brand of pies sickened an estimated 15,000 people in 41 states.

The true culprit in such poisonings, however, is not the little deadly bug, but the twin killers of corporate globalization and greed. Giant food corporations, scavenging the globe in a constant search for ever-cheaper ingredients to put in their processed edibles, are resorting to low-wage, high-pollution nations that have practically no food-safety laws, much less any safety enforcement.

Consider the case of ConAgra Foods, a massive conglomerate that sells 100 million potpies a year under its Banquet label. Each pie contains 25 ingredients sourced from all over the world — often from subcontractors who don’t report their sources. Until the 2007 salmonella contamination of its pies, ConAgra did not even require suppliers to test for pathogens, nor did it do its own tests. Since poisoning one’s customers turned out to be a bad strategy for earning repeat business, the conglomerate now runs spot checks — but even when it detects contamination in a pie, it has not been able to determine which ingredient is the bad one.

In fact, as the New York Times recently reported in an extensive exposé, food giants concede that their supply chains are so far-flung that they “do not even know who is supplying their ingredients, let alone if those suppliers are screening items for microbes.” Meanwhile, the industry’s lobbying front, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, has aggressively fought federal efforts to require a tracking system. “This information is not reasonably needed,” the GMA curtly responded when such a rule was proposed.

Alarming consumer alert: Today, contamination has become so widespread that major frozen food purveyors admit they can no longer ensure the safety of their products!

Perhaps you’re thinking that, surely, this self-indictment of the reckless globalization process has prompted corporations to change their systems and suppliers in order to ensure you and me that their foods are safe to eat. Ha! What a silly dreamer you are.

That could squeeze their profits, so instead they’ve come up with a much more corporate-friendly solution: They’re shifting their contamination problem to you and me!

You’ll notice that frozen food packages now contain precise, almost frantic instructions (complete with illustrations) on “kill steps” that we must take to keep their products from poisoning us. Banquet, for example, has a four-step diagram on the back of its potpie packages, directing consumers to make sure that the pie is heated to an internal temperature of exactly 165 degrees “as measured by a food thermometer in several spots.”

Do such directives actually make frozen foods safe? An official with the Blackstone Group, the Wall Street equity firm that owns Swanson and Hungry Man brands, curtly states that the level of risk to consumers depends on “how badly they followed our directions.”

His snotty attitude aside, following corporate cooking instructions to a “T” doesn’t do the trick. The New York Times tested the directions on various brands of pot pies — and all failed to achieve the magic level of 165 degrees. “Some spots in the pie heated to only 140 degrees even as parts of the crust were burnt,” wrote reporter Michael Moss.

This is absurd. Frozen foods are supposed to be a consumer convenience, not a risky science experiment. Instead of thrusting faulty instructions at us on how to avoid “death by pie,” how about just requiring conglomerates that profit from these products to accept their responsibility to put safe ingredients in their pies?

Jim Hightower is a national radio

commentator, columnist and author.

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