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Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower
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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 pot pie."

America's pot-pie 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 pot pies 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 expose, 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 pot-pie 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?

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.

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Comments

2 Comments | Post Comment
Gee whiz, wouldn't insisting on safer standards be something like government regulation? Isn't this like going from a free market economy to socialism? Next thing you know, they will be wanting these poor corporations to use American grown products prepared and packaged by union labor! I wonder how many lives that would save?
Comment: #1
Posted by: Paul M. Petkovsek
Wed May 27, 2009 2:03 PM
Excellent article. When greed (and its companions, violence and oppression) stop being the basic characteristics of food policy, along with other policies, we will start to become truly democratic. I'm libertarian, but not in the greedy anarcho-capitalist interpretation of the word. We the people must not allow ourselves to be oppressed - and that oppression can come from any concentration of power, whether it be the state or private enterprise. But in this situation, I think it is necessary to give the state power to regulate the food giants, in view of the excessive power these big corporations have taken for themselves - we can see the awful results, can't we?
Comment: #2
Posted by: Kenneth
Thu May 28, 2009 2:22 AM
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