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Schachter, Hendy & Johnson, Attorneys At Law

Food manufacturers make consumers responsible

    Attorney Ronald E. Johnson of Schachter & Hendy concentrates on legal issues regarding defective products.  A recent article in the The New York Times says that food companies are expecting consumers to be responsible for making sure the food they sell  is not filled with dangerous pathogens. 

    According to the article, ConAgra Foods which sells Banquet frozen pot pies detected some salmonella but was not able to pinpoint where it came from in the 25 ingredients included in the pies.  They decided to make the consumer responsible for what they call the “kill step,” the point at which the pathogens are eliminated.  ConAngra Foods, which sold 100 million pot pies last year, included food safety instructions that cautioned that internal temperature when cooking the pot pies  needed to reach 165 Degrees F.  ConAgra also added food safety instructions to its other frozen meals, including the Healthy Choice brand.

    Other food companies, such as Nestle and the Blackstone Group that produces Swanson and Hungry Man frozen meals said they are also shifting the burden of safety to the consumer.  And General Mills, which recalled five million frozen pizzas in 2007 after an E. coli contamination, now advises consumers to use conventional ovens rather than microwaves to cook their frozen foods.  

    Unlikely items such as peanuts and white pepper have been proven to be contaminated as food companies search for ways to cut costs and global places to provide food ingredients.  The problem is serious with frozen foods.  Federal regulators such as the Federal Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention have pushed companies to include cooking instructions with detailed food safety guides, but some companies don't include these instructions, some are using outdated safety guidelines, and some have only abbreviated guidelines on the side of the boxes in tiny print that consumers probably don't read.

    According to the article, there are estimated to be 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses every year that go unreported or are not traced to the source.  Food safety experts think it is the responsibility of the food manufacturer to ensure their food's safety, not the consumer.

    The CDC produced a report after the ConAgra outbreak and found that most people don't own a food thermometer, but one in four had cooked their pot pies in a conventional oven and the food was still contaminated.

    The FDA says combating foodborne illnesses is one of its top priorities.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne ailments cause about 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,200 deaths nationwide each year.    

    The FDA says don’t buy frozen food if the package is damaged. Packages should not be open, torn or crushed on the edges. Also, avoid packages that are above the frost line in the store’s freezer. If the package cover is transparent, look for signs of frost or ice crystals. This could mean that the food in the package has either been stored for a long time or thawed and refrozen. In such cases, choose another package. If it will take more than an hour to get your groceries home, use an ice chest to keep frozen and perishable foods cold. Also, when the weather is warm and you are using your car’s air conditioner, keep your groceries in the passenger compartment, not the trunk.

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