Patterico's Pontifications

10/16/2007

Protecting America’s Food Supply and its Suppliers

Filed under: Government — DRJ @ 4:04 pm



[Guest post by DRJ]

ConAgra recently recalled Banquet and store-brand pot pies that have been linked to a salmonella outbreak. Critics say ConAgra was negligent in it’s handling of the recall and more people became ill as a result. At least one member of Congress wants the FDA to have greater authority over food recalls.

From an AP report out of Omaha NE, ConAgra was criticized for delaying a voluntary recall:

Critics say ConAgra Foods Inc.’s delay in recalling pot pies linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak increased the chance that more people would become sick, opened up the company to greater liability, and exposed a key weakness in the nation’s food safety system: voluntary recalls. “It’s clear that this recall wasn’t well handled, and the outbreak may well grow,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s food safety division.

ConAgra issued a health alert Tuesday afternoon and asked stores nationwide to stop selling Banquet and store-brand chicken and turkey pot pies, but the company didn’t recall the pies until Thursday evening. The company and federal officials warned customers not to eat the pot pies and to throw them away, and ConAgra is offering refunds. The recall, which also includes beef pot pies to avoid confusion, affects all varieties sold under the store brands Albertson’s, Hill Country Fare, Food Lion, Great Value (sold at Wal-Mart stores), Kirkwood, Kroger, Meijer and Western Family.”

It’s unclear to me when the FDA can intervene to issue a mandatory recall and how much proof is required to show the food is adulterated. In the ConAgra case, it appears the FDA either did not have authority to issue a mandatory recall or chose not to:

“Even though the pot pies made by ConAgra have been linked to at least 174 cases of salmonella in 32 states, the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not have the authority to require the company to recall the pot pies. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at least 33 people have been hospitalized as part of the ongoing outbreak, but so far no deaths have been reported.

ConAgra spokeswoman Melissa Baron said Friday that the company still didn’t know any more about the problem with its pot pies than it did when the alert was issued. She said recalling the product was a precaution. “We want to make absolutely certain that consumers are safe, and while the investigation into the matter continues, we wanted to reinforce that consumers should not eat these products,” Baron said.

USDA spokeswoman Amanda Eamich said ConAgra made the decision to recall the pot pies on its own. USDA investigators were still working to find the source of the salmonella contamination, she said.

One Congresswoman wants the FDA to have greater authority to issue mandatory recalls:

“You’re looking at the perfect example of a broken system,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro said about the pot pie recall. Earlier this year, the Connecticut Democrat helped introduce legislation that would give the FDA the power to order mandatory recalls of adulterated food products, plus establish fines for companies that don’t promptly report contaminated products. “It is a voluntary recall, so it is up to the industry,” DeLauro said.”

My preference is generally for industry-based recalls … up to a point, but I’m not knowledgeable enough about food safety issues to know where that point is. However, this is clearly a recurring issue given the recent Topps beef recall that raised questions about the timing of recalls and ultimately resulted in the liquidation of Topps’ business.

Companies have an interest in staying in business so they have mixed incentives, both to hide and to quickly deal with problems. However, giving the FDA early recall authority – especially if it’s based solely on suspicion and not proof of adulteration – is a grossly inefficient remedy that won’t necessarily make the food supply safer.

This sounds like a good time for some enterprising inventors to find quicker, better, more reliable ways to test food safety.

— DRJ

5 Responses to “Protecting America’s Food Supply and its Suppliers”

  1. Irradiated food should be available to those of us who want it.

    http://www.fda.gov/opacom/catalog/irradbro.html

    Gbear (5a473d)

  2. Gbear is the Man!

    Another Drew (8018ee)

  3. How would cooking the pies not kill the salmonella bacteria?

    Techie (c003f1)

  4. Next to insufficient internal temperature the biggest problem with salmonella is cross-contamination. While handling the uncooked food the bacteria can be transferred to surfaces, dishes and utensils used for other food.

    nk (6e4f93)

  5. The internals of the pot pies are supposed to be pre-cooked. When you bake them in the oven or heat them in the microwave, depending, you’re only reheating what’s supposed to already be cooked and safe.

    Basically, you aren’t heating the center of the pot pie hot enough and long enough to kill harmful bacteria in there. You’re just heating it up to the point where it tastes good again.

    (More realistically, this all depends on how long you choose to cook the pot pie, how good your oven or microwave is, whether you centered the pie on the rack the way you were supposed to, etc. If you start with a tainted pot pie, then every minor mistake above makes it more likely that enough salmonella will get through to give you a problem. And of course if you cook it too long just to be sure, you’ll burn the crust. )

    luagha (678c67)


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