Is the Consumer Responsible for Product Safety?

Pop Quiz: Your company makes frozen pot pies, and some cases of salmonella have been traced back to your products. What do you do?

Did you answer, “Tell the consumer to do a better job of cooking the pie”? I sure didn’t.

But a recent article in The New York Times says that is exactly what food manufacturers are doing.

The new trend traces back to two years ago, when 15,000 people became ill, and investigators traced the salmonella to pot pies made by ConAgra Foods.

So 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…”

In addition to ConAgra, other food giants like 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.

As a lean advocate, I can’t help thinking that ensuring the safety of its products is the responsibility of the manufacturer or food processor, not the customer. And I’m also inclined to think that using lean strategies to improve processes should make it possible to do that.

In fairness, I’m sure food processing is challenging. I’m sure that even with excellent processes, sometimes some of those nasty bacteria can sneak through.

However, the Times article (by Michael Moss) makes clear that this is not just a processing issue, but a supply chain issue. Many of the ingredients used by a company like ConAgra are provided – and processed – by suppliers.

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…

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.”

Now, in the wake of polls that show food poisoning incidents are shaking shopper confidence, the group is re-evaluating its position.

I should mention that in addition to changing its labels, ConAgra has also been taking other actions, including testing for microbes in all pie ingredients.

But there is great variation among the steps different food manufacturers are taking, including variation on what they say on their newest labels.

And to shake your confidence further, the Times cooked pies following the new directions and found that parts of the pies did not reach the temperatures considered high enough to kill bacteria.

I can’t help but believe that the never-ending search for low-cost suppliers is a contributing factor to this problem.

It’s a tough situation. I don’t know exactly what steps ConAgra and the other processors should be taking.

But I do know I’ll never look at a frozen pot pie the same way.

PS – A recent article in Forbes highlighted a company called Yottamark that makes software for tracking food products

Its HarvestMark system already allows folks who buy produce from 40 companies to go to harvestmark.com, type in the product code on any label bearing the company's butterfly-like logo and see the source of the food they're about to eat…

For half a penny or less per box (the plastic container that holds Driscoll's berries, for instance), Yottamark provides growers with a tracking code, printed on the bottom. In the fields of Salinas, Calif. or any area where Driscoll's grows strawberries, a supervisor records data about a batch--such as the crew of pickers, the date and the lot where the berries were picked--and sweeps the form with an electronic scanner. Those data get uploaded to a central server…

There's no way, of course, for HarvestMark to know if the produce it tracks carries disease-causing bacteria or not. That's why the company and its clients are careful about how they pitch the service. Grant points out that companies that use HarvestMark shouldn't say their products are "safer." Instead, they are "traceable."

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