Dear Consumer,

I have taken it upon myself to write to you personally with the intent of informing you of a most important fact.  This is a fact about which you may not be fully (or at all) aware, and the potential consequences regarding this fact are great, even deadly.  Oh, and it directly involves you and every member of your family.  So without further rambling, here it is: you are now considered a “kill step” and should proceed accordingly.

No, I did not just insult you.  I am, of course, referring to your role in the manufacturing process of prepared, but not ready-to-eat foods.  Didn’t you get the memo?

For the uninitiated, a “kill step” is the term typically used to describe a point in the food manufacturing process where potentially deadly pathogens are eradicated from the product (usually by killing the pathogen).  Traditionally the “kill step” has involved cooking, pasteurization, pathogen-killing washes, irradiation, etc.  One commonality among these techniques was their timing in the manufacturing process.  The step occurred before the product was sold to retail establishments, put on the store shelf, and ended up in your refrigerator or freezer.  This policy operated from the understanding that it was the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure that the food product you purchased from the store was free of adulterants, like pathogens, that could make you sick or even kill you.

But outbreak after outbreak has shown that food companies are not doing a very effective job of achieving this standard, and that something else had to be done to achieve food safety goals while also keeping the cost as low as possible.  This is where you now come in.

Imagine it this way:  you purchase a new, top of the line car and decide to take your family on a weekend road trip to rev the engine and see what it can really do when out on the open road.  As you cruise down the highway, you notice the cars ahead in your lane slowing and depress the brake pedal to match their speed, only to have the pedal snap off at the last moment, leading to a horrible car accident.  Now imagine if the car company said it was your responsibility to perform a final weld on the brake pedal before you used it (didn’t you read the manual front to back, dummy?)  In other words, ensuring the safety of your brand spanking new purchase should fall on your shoulders, not theirs.

In essence, the shifting of responsibility is what this new consumer “kill step” is all about.  A study published this past month in the British Food Journal by researchers from Kansas State University highlights the potential for grave consequences that can occur when the responsibility for effective “kill steps” are shifted from the manufacturer to the end user.

The study, titled Self-reported and Observed Behavior of Primary Meal Preparers and Adolescents During Preparation of Frozen, Uncooked, Breaded Chicken Products, concluded that safe handling and cooking of frozen, uncooked, breaded chicken rarely occurs, in spite of the preparer’s intentions and perceptions about their behavior.  

The researchers used video surveillance equipment to study participants in two model kitchens as they prepared frozen, uncooked, breaded chicken products.  These products were specifically chosen because of the similarity to products implicated in numerous past foodborne illness outbreaks.  The results–noted after monitoring the 41 adult and adolescent consumers prepare the products to a complete, ready-to-eat state–were hardly surprising.

With regard to thermometer use, only 3 of the 41 participants used the digital or dial read food thermometer correctly.  The importance of proper, accurate thermometer readings when cooking raw foods cannot be overstated.  Heating to 165 degrees Fahrenheit in the center of the product is necessary for the end-consumer cooking process to be an effective “kill step.”

Further, assuming the consumer is actually using the thermometer correctly, are the temperature readings even accurate?  A 2004 study by the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management, titled Inaccuracy of Food Temperature Measurement with the Bimetallic Coil (Dial) Thermometer, answers that question with a resounding “maybe.”  

For bimetallic thermometers–the type commonly used by cooks–it must be fully inserted into the food item so that the complete length of the coil is in the food.  “Then, it registers the average temperature from the tip to the top end of the coil.  Therefore, if one end is 125 degrees Fahrenheit, and the other end is 175 F, the thermometer indicates 150 F.”  Even more serious is the thermometer’s inherent design flaw for certain foods.  Because the entire coil needs to be inserted into the food item, bimetallic thermometers are “virtually impossible to accurately measure thin foods such as chicken breast, a hamburger, or scrambled eggs.”  After conducting numerous tests on various foods, such as meatballs, hot dogs, chicken breasts, and hamburgers, the study found that the bimetallic thermometer readings were between 10 and 48 F below the actual center temperature of the food when measured with a more accurate tip-sensitive thermometer.  

Setting aside the myriad issues with measuring the actual temperature of the food, how about the effectiveness of the instructed cooking directions contained on the package of prepared, but not ready-to-eat foods?  

New York Times writer Michael Moss wrote about this very issue in his article, Food Companies Are Placing the Onus for Safety on Consumers.  Attempts by staff at the newspaper to follow the directions on several different types of frozen meals, including ConAgra Foods’ Banquet pot pies, “failed to achieve the required 165-degree temperature.  Some spots in the pies heated to only 140 degrees even as parts of the crust were burnt.”  When they called the ConAgra consumer hotline listed on the back of the packaging, the operator informed them that “claims by microwave-oven manufacturers about their wattage power could not be trusted.”  

In other words, instructions telling the consumer to cook the product, for example, 10-12 minutes in a 750 watt microwave oven, or 8-10 minutes in a 1,000 watt microwave oven, are unreliable.  Additionally, how long exactly are you supposed to cook it?  10 minutes? 11 minutes? 12 minutes?

But the most compelling argument for not relying on the consumer as a “kill step” comes from Jim Seiple, a food safety official with the makers of Swanson and Hungry-Man pot pies–“The pot pie instructions have built-in margins of error, Mr. Seiple said, and the risk to consumers depended on ‘how badly they followed our directions.'”

If consumers are the newest craze in “kill step” technology, the food companies utilizing our “services” had better be damn sure that we know of our role, and have the complete understanding, training, and tools for every aspect of the process to ensure its efficacy in the real world.

The above-mentioned recent studies and articles back up what I have long feared to be true–consumers are not being made aware of their foisted-on “kill step” duties, and in the real world of busy kitchens, variable watt microwaves, and non-English reading families, it is simply a horrible idea.

Let me be clear, I do not believe consumers should be ignorant about their role in food safety or the reasonable steps each of us can take to reduce the chances of contracting a foodborne illness.  But making the end consumer a “kill step” in the food manufacturing process is a dangerous idea, one fraught with so many variables and potentials for error that it is ludicrous to rely on it.  Food manufacturers of prepared, but not ready-to-eat foods need to take back their “kill
step” and put it in their ow
n manufacturing process so that the product sitting in the refrigerated isle of our local grocery store is safe, free from pathogens, and ready for human consumption.