NOBODY likes home economics. For most people, the phrase evokes bland food, bad
sewing and self-righteous fussiness.
But home economics is more than a 1950s teacher in cat’s-eye glasses showing her
female students how to make a white sauce. Reviving the program, and its
original premises — that producing good, nutritious food is profoundly
important, that it takes study and practice, and that it can and should be
taught through the public school system — could help us in the fight against
obesity and chronic disease today.
The home economics movement was founded on the belief that housework and food
preparation were important subjects that should be studied scientifically. The
first classes occurred in the agricultural and technical colleges that were
built from the proceeds of federal land grants in the 1860s. By the early 20th
century, and increasingly after the passage of federal legislation like the 1917
Smith-Hughes Act, which provided support for the training of teachers in home
economics, there were classes in elementary, middle and high schools across the
country. When universities excluded women from most departments, home economics
was a back door into higher education. Once there, women worked hard to make the
case that “domestic science” was in fact a scientific discipline, linked to
chemistry, biology and bacteriology.
Indeed, in the early 20th century, home economics was a serious subject. When
few understood germ theory and almost no one had heard of vitamins, home
economics classes offered vital information about washing hands regularly,
eating fruits and vegetables and not feeding coffee to babies, among other
Eventually, however, the discipline’s basic tenets about health and hygiene
became so thoroughly popularized that they came to seem like common sense. As a
result, their early proponents came to look like old maids stating the obvious
instead of the innovators and scientists that many of them really were.
Increasingly, home economists’ eagerness to dispense advice on everything from
eating to sleeping to posture galled.
Today we remember only the stereotypes about home economics, while forgetting
the movement’s crucial lessons on healthy eating and cooking.
Too many Americans simply don’t know how to cook. Our diets, consisting of
highly processed foods made cheaply outside the home thanks to subsidized corn
and soy, have contributed to an enormous health crisis. More than half of all
adults and more than a third of all children are overweight or obese. Chronic
diseases associated with weight gain, like heart disease and diabetes, are
hobbling more and more Americans.
In the last decade, many cities and states have tried — and generally failed —
to tax junk food or to ban the use of food stamps to buy soda. Clearly, many
people are leery of any governmental steps to promote healthy eating; Michelle
Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity has inspired right-wing panic about a
secret food police.
But what if the government put the tools of obesity prevention in the hands of
children themselves, by teaching them how to cook?
My first brush with home economics, as a seventh grader in a North Carolina
public school two decades ago, was grim. The most sophisticated cooking we did
was opening a can of pre-made biscuit dough, sticking our thumbs in the center
of each raw biscuit to make a hole, and then handing them over to the teacher,
who dipped them in hot grease to make doughnuts.
Cooking classes for public school students need not be so utterly stripped of
content, or so cynical about students’ abilities to cook and enjoy high-quality
A year later, my father’s job took our family to Wales, where I attended, for a
few months, a large school in a mid-size industrial city. There, students
brought ingredients from home and learned to follow recipes, some simple and
some not-so-simple, eventually making vegetable soups and meat and potato pies
from scratch. It was the first time I had ever really cooked anything. I
remember that it was fun, and with an instructor standing by, it wasn’t hard.
Those were deeply empowering lessons, ones that stuck with me when I first
started cooking for myself in earnest after college.
In the midst of contracting school budgets and test-oriented curricula, the idea
of reviving home economics as part of a broad offensive against obesity might
sound outlandish. But teaching cooking — real cooking — in public schools could
help address a host of problems facing Americans today. The history of home
economics shows it’s possible.
Murray Handwerker, who transformed his father’s Brooklyn hot dog business,
Nathan’s Famous, into a celebrated national fast-food chain, died Saturday at
his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He was 89.
His son William confirmed his death.
Nathan’s Famous, at Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island, was opened by
Mr. Handwerker’s father and mother in 1916 and soon became an American legend,
its name virtually synonymous with hot dogs. In 1939, President Franklin D.
Roosevelt served Nathan’s hot dogs to the king and queen of England.
Mr. Handwerker spent his childhood at Nathan’s Famous. “I was raised behind the
counter of the Coney store,” he told The New York Times in 1986. “My playpen was
a 3-by-3 crate the hot dog rolls used to come in.”
His father, Nathan, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, and his mother, Ida, had
opened the stand with $300 borrowed from the entertainers Jimmy Durante and
Eddie Cantor, friends of his father’s who had yet to become stars. Nathan’s sold
all-beef hot dogs at a nickel, half of what its Coney Island competitor was
“We were the original fast-food operation,” Mr. Handwerker recalled in an oral
history, “It Happened in Brooklyn,” by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer,
rereleased in 2009 by SUNY Press. “We called it finger food; you didn’t need a
knife and fork. But it was always quality. My father insisted on that.”
It was Murray Handwerker who turned the family business from a famous hot dog
stand to a famous national chain, which went public in 1968. After returning
from World War II Army service, Mr. Handwerker joined Nathan’s Famous in 1946
and, his son William said, “had many ideas of expanding.”
In “It Happened in Brooklyn,” Mr. Handwerker recalled returning home with other
soldiers in the 1940s and wanting to add other foods to the Nathan’s Famous
“I realized the American soldier had been exposed to French food, his tastes had
become more sophisticated,” he said. Despite his father’s objections, Mr.
Handwerker successfully introduced shrimp and clams to Nathan’s menu. He later
added a delicatessen line.
There were other disagreements with his father, including one over whether to
let restaurant managers have days off during the summer. At the time, Murray
Handwerker said, the managers were working seven days a week, and he insisted
they be given a day off. The first week, they all got terrible sunburns and
could not come into work the next day. “My father gave me hell,” he recalled in
“It Happened in Brooklyn.”
Mr. Handwerker was born in Brooklyn on July 25, 1921, and graduated from New
York University in 1947 with a degree in French. “I loved languages,” he told
The Times in 1986, “but the only time I used French was during the old World’s
Fair when a lot of French people came to Coney Island for hot dogs.”
By the mid-1960s Nathan’s had three restaurants, and Mr. Handwerker, who became
president of the company in 1968, oversaw its expansion over the next decade by
adding dozens of company-owned restaurants and franchised units. He also
published a cookbook featuring Nathan’s Famous recipes. He became chairman in
By the early 1980s, Nathan’s was struggling. Its stock, which had reached $42 in
1971, had fallen to $1 by 1981. Mr. Handwerker was forced to close some of the
restaurants and abandon the idea of a franchise that would offer a more limited
menu. “Nathan’s forte is supposed to be variety,” he said at the time. The
company also ran into trouble with some of its franchisees.
The business survived, however, as Mr. Handwerker continued to emphasize its
main menu item. “The hot dog,” his son said, “was the mainstay.”
Mr. Handwerker ran the business until the family sold its stake to the Equicor
Group, a private investment company, in 1987. He then retired to Florida.
Mr. Handwerker’s wife, Dorothy, died in 2009. He is survived by his sons,
Steven, Kenneth and William; his brother, Sol; and several grandchildren.
At the company’s 70th-anniversary celebration near the Times Square Nathan’s in
1986, Mr. Handwerker was being given a hard time by Mayor Edward I. Koch, who
complained about the demise of the five-cent hot dog. Grabbing the microphone,
Mr. Handwerker explained to the crowd that the five-cent frankfurter went out
with the five-cent subway ride.
DENVER — The nation’s buffalo ranchers have no catchy marketing slogan about
what’s for dinner, and no big trade association budget to pay for making one up.
What they have these days are people like Joe and Matt Gould, an ambitious
father-and-son team from western Kansas who branched out after 100 years of
traditional cattle ranching by their family, and bought their first buffalo herd
The Goulds, with 40 animals as a start, made their first delivery of buffalo
meat, also known as bison, to friends here in Denver last week. They are opening
a themed restaurant on the Kansas-Colorado border supplied by the ranch, and
planning bison hunts for tourist-visitors.
“People want the high omega-3s,” which are healthy fats, said Joe Gould, 61, as
he scribbled notes at a mentoring session for buffalo-ranching newcomers at the
National Bison Association’s winter conference at a hotel here last week.
With prices and American consumption of buffalo at all-time highs — though still
minuscule in volume compared with beef, chicken or pork — a new chapter is
clearly beginning for one of the oldest animal-human relationships on the
continent, dating back millennia before the first Europeans arrived.
New ranchers are coming in. Older ranchers are straining to build up herds,
holding back breeding females from slaughter and thus compounding what retailers
say is already a supply crunch. Buffalo meat prices, meanwhile, have soared — up
about 28 percent last year for an average rib-eye steak cut, according to the
federal Department of Agriculture.
At Tony’s Market here in Denver, that surge is even steeper, up 25 percent just
last week for a New York strip buffalo steak, to $24.98 a pound, $10 more per
pound than premium beef for the same cut.
What happened, producers and retailers say, is that the buffalo, the great
ruminant of the Plains — once endangered, now raised on ranches by the tens of
thousands — has thundered into an era of growing buyer concern about where food
comes from, what an animal dined on and how it all affects the planet.
Trendsetting consumers and restaurants on the East and West Coasts caught on.
Grass-fed, sustainable and locally grown, obscure concepts to most people 15
years ago or so when the buffalo meat market first emerged, became buzzwords of
the foodie culture. Nutritional bean counters, obsessing over lipid fats and
omegas, found in buffalo a meat they could love.
“For the last two years, it’s been one of the fastest-growing categories in our
meat department,” said Theo Weening, the global meat coordinator for Whole Foods
Market, one of the nation’s largest retailers of buffalo at its chain of stores.
Mr. Weening said buffalo benefited from a kind of synergy: customers started
embracing the idea of grass-fed beef, and from there it was a short leap to
bison. “Both categories went hand in hand,” he said.
But this new moment, buffalo ranchers and retailers say, is also loaded with
risk that growth could come too fast or prices could surge so much that buyers
or retailers back away. It is also spiced with a debate about what people really
Many of the new ranchers, like the Goulds, say the future of buffalo can be
summed up by one term: grass-fed. Feeding animals only on grass, with no grain
in their diet at all, is more natural for the animal and produces the kind of
low-fat, environmentally sustainable product that they say best competes with
beef for a place on the nation’s dinner table.
Many veteran ranchers, though, say that what consumers and retailers really want
is consistency — one cut of buffalo tasting about the same as the next in both
flavor and texture. And only grain-feeding, with some grain — often corn — in
the diet in the last months before slaughter, can do that, they say.
Crucially, they say, grain-finished buffalo is what most people have probably
tasted, bought at Whole Foods or off a restaurant menu. Purely grass-fed
buffalo, they say, is harder to find and can vary in taste and tenderness from
region to region and season to season. However it is raised, buffalo meat has
much less fat than beef.
“We want no surprises for our customers,” said Russell Miller, the general
manager at Turner Enterprises, which owns the chain of buffalo ranches owned by
the media mogul and conservationist Ted Turner. Turner Enterprises, by far the
nation’s largest buffalo rancher, with more than 50,000 animals, supplies some
of the buffalo at Whole Foods, as well as the meat for Mr. Turner’s
buffalo-themed restaurant chain, Ted’s Montana Grill.
When it comes to the question of grass-fed versus grain-fed, the answer from
David E. Carter, the executive director of the National Bison Association, is a
Buddha-like wisdom of abstention.
“I’m not going to say one is better than the other,” he said in an interview
between meetings at the association’s conference, where straight-leg jeans and
boots was the uniform du jour. “People are moving forward from here in different
ways, and we’ll let our customers tell us the answer.”
Mr. Weening at Whole Foods said his company was trying a third way, of sorts. It
is in discussions with its three suppliers to end feed-lot finishing for buffalo
— still feeding the animals a partly grain-based diet to build up a little fat
in the final months of life, but doing so in a pasture setting instead of in
But with all the hand-wringing and hope about the future, the fact remains that
buffalo is still barely a footnote. The average American ate about 65 pounds of
beef last year but not even a Quarter Pounder’s worth of bison, according to the
The numbers of animals in the food chain reflect that disparity — about 70,000
buffalo slaughtered for their meat last year, according to the association,
compared with more than 125,000 cattle every day.
But for newcomers like the Goulds, Lesson 1 is that buffalo are not anything
While cattle can be easily herded along, their wild genes muted by generations
on a treadmill to the slaughterhouse, buffalo might decide to turn and charge.
When they do, they can outrun a track star, up to 30 miles per hour.
And while a cattle herd will usually respect a fence, a buffalo herd will not.
“We’ve figured out some things already, mostly by doing them incorrectly,” said
Matt Gould, 32. “But it’s a pretty steep learning curve.”
A lot, if you are typical. By most estimates, a quarter to half of all food
produced in the United States goes uneaten — left in fields, spoiled in
transport, thrown out at the grocery store, scraped into the garbage or
forgotten until it spoils.
A study in Tompkins County, N.Y., showed that 40 percent of food waste occurred
in the home. Another study, by the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, found
that 93 percent of respondents acknowledged buying foods they never used.
And worries about food safety prompt many of us to throw away perfectly good
food. In a study at Oregon State University, consumers were shown three samples
of iceberg lettuce, two of them with varying degrees of light brown on the edges
and at the base. Although all three were edible, and the brown edges easily cut
away, 40 percent of respondents said they would serve only the pristine lettuce.
In his new book “American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its
Food” (Da Capo Press), Jonathan Bloom makes the case that curbing food waste
isn’t just about cleaning your plate.
“The bad news is that we’re extremely wasteful,” Mr. Bloom said in an interview.
“The positive side of it is that we have a real role to play here, and we can
effect change. If we all reduce food waste in our homes, we’ll have a
Why should we care about food waste? For starters, it’s expensive. Citing
various studies, including one at the University of Arizona called the Garbage
Project that tracked home food waste for three decades, Mr. Bloom estimates that
as much as 25 percent of the food we bring into our homes is wasted. So a family
of four that spends $175 a week on groceries squanders more than $40 worth of
food each week and $2,275 a year.
And from a health standpoint, allowing fresh fruits, vegetables and meats to
spoil in our refrigerators increases the likelihood that we will turn to less
healthful processed foods or restaurant meals. Wasted food also takes an
environmental toll. Food scraps make up about 19 percent of the waste dumped in
landfills, where it ends up rotting and producing methane, a greenhouse gas.
A major culprit, Mr. Bloom says, is refrigerator clutter. Fresh foods and
leftovers languish on crowded shelves and eventually go bad. Mr. Bloom tells the
story of discovering basil, mint and a red onion hiding in the fridge of a
friend who had just bought all three, forgetting he already had them.
“It gets frustrating when you forget about something and discover it two weeks
later,” Mr. Bloom said. “So many people these days have these massive
refrigerators, and there is this sense that we need to keep them well stocked.
But there’s no way you can eat all that food before it goes bad.”
Then there are chilling and food-storage problems. The ideal refrigerator
temperature is 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and the freezer should be zero degrees,
says Mark Connelly, deputy technical director for Consumer Reports, which
recently conducted extensive testing on a variety of refrigerators. The magazine
found that most but not all newer models had good temperature control, although
models with digital temperature settings typically were the best.
Vegetables keep best in crisper drawers with separate humidity controls.
If food seems to be spoiling quickly in your refrigerator, check to make sure
you’re following the manufacturer’s care instructions. Look behind the fridge to
see if coils have become caked with dust, dirt or pet hair, which can interfere
“One of the pieces of advice we give is to go to a hardware store and buy a
relatively inexpensive thermometer,” Mr. Connelly said. “Put it in the
refrigerator to check the temperature to make sure it’s cold enough.”
There’s an even easier way: check the ice cream. If it feels soft, that means
the temperature is at least 8 degrees Fahrenheit and you need to lower the
setting. And if you’re investing in a new model, don’t just think about space
and style, but focus on the refrigerator that has the best sight lines, so you
can see what you’re storing. Bottom-freezer units put fresh foods at eye level,
lowering the chance that they will be forgotten and left to spoil.
Mr. Bloom also suggests “making friends with your freezer,” using it to store
fresh foods that would otherwise spoil before you have time to eat them.
Or invest in special produce containers with top vents and bottom strainers to
keep food fresh. Buy whole heads of lettuce, which stay fresher longer, or add a
paper towel to the bottom of bagged lettuce and vegetables to absorb liquids.
Finally, plan out meals and create detailed shopping lists so you don’t buy more
food than you can eat.
Don’t be afraid of brown spots or mushy parts that can easily be cut away.
“Consumers want perfect foods,” said Shirley Van Garde, the now-retired
co-author of the Oregon State study. “They have real difficulty trying to tell
the difference in quality changes and safety spoilage. With lettuce, take off a
couple of leaves, you can do some cutting and the rest of it is still usable.”
And if you do decide to throw away food, give it a second look, Mr. Bloom
advises. “The common attitude is ‘when in doubt, throw it out,’” he said. “But I
try to give the food the benefit of the doubt.”
NEW YORK (AP) -- Whether sit-down or take-out, restaurant chains are finding
the key to persuading people to spring for lunch these days is keeping the tab
''There is no reason why anyone should spend more than $10 for lunch,'' said
Zach Brooks, a stay-at-home dad and blogger who writes about lunch spots in
Restaurants certainly appear to be listening. Many have conducted extensive
consumer research to determine the magic price that will get customers through
Hot sub maker Quiznos, for example, launched a new toasty sandwich in March
called the Torpedo at $4 after testing it with focus groups at $4, $4.29 and
$4.59 to figure out what consumers were willing to pay.
''$4 really went over the cliff,'' said Chief Executive Rick Schaden. ''If I can
get fed a good-size portion for $4 and that's my lunch, they're highly
Schaden said Quiznos' overall sales jumped by double-digits and traffic is up
more than 30 percent this spring. Quiznos sells a variety of toasted sub
sandwiches. In January, the company cut its prices on 37 of its menu items,
taking 20 of its subs under $5.
For chains without waiter service, the $5 mark seems to generate the most
interest, said David Urban, a professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth
''There seems to be something about that $5 price range give or take a dollar or
so that seems to sing with consumers as sort of a threshold point in their minds
about whether it's worth it to go out or not,'' Urban said.
T.G.I. Friday's is pursuing the parsimonious with nine new salads and sandwiches
in April for $5 -- a move Andrew Jordan, senior vice president of marketing,
said has boosted the company's lunch business. The regular prices for the nine
salads and sandwiches range from $6 to $11 and will go back into effect June 1.
The company is also offering ''endless'' refills on soup, salad, breadsticks and
drinks during lunch for $6.99.
Urban said fast-casual and even sit-down chains are stealing a strategy that has
long worked well for fast-food chains. McDonald's Corp., the fast-food industry
leader, has offered $1 meals and value deals for years. And its same-store
sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, rose 4.3 percent in the three
months ending in late March, while those at most other restaurants dropped
Lunch has been an especially difficult meal for most chains since it is one of
the easiest for customers to cut out or replace with a brown bag from home.
''Obviously, when money is tight, things like lunch are out,'' Urban said,
''especially sit-down lunches at full-service restaurants.''
Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant
Association, said lunch traffic goes down whenever the number of employed
consumers drops. Those without jobs have less need for convenient lunch options
and have less cash to spend.
Most consumers who are still working are still eating out -- just not as
''I have been brown bagging it more often recently, but sometimes I just have to
get out of the office to get some quality face time with my colleagues,'' said
Dan Brown, who works at a technology public relations company outside Chicago.
In Atlanta, brand research consultant Bryan Oekel said he goes out to lunch
about three times a week and typically spends about $8. Lately, he's been
cutting back on ordering drinks with a meal to save a bit of cash.
''Most of the places I go to don't have the value meal,'' Oekel said. ''The
drink typically is $1 or $2 more.''
Brian McAfee, a training manager for Strayer University in Newington, Va., said
he tries to keep lunches out under $6 but is willing to go up to $10 if ''it's
something better'' like Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Urban and Riehle both said most restaurants' lunch prices aren't likely to go
back up soon.
''It's actually a very good time for consumers to get great deals and restaurant
meals,'' Riehle said.
The frozen pot pies that sickened an estimated 15,000 people with salmonella
in 2007 left federal inspectors mystified. At first they suspected the turkey.
Then they considered the peas, carrots and potatoes.
The pie maker, ConAgra Foods, began spot-checking the vegetables for pathogens,
but could not find the culprit. It also tried cooking the vegetables at high
temperatures, a strategy the industry calls a “kill step,” to wipe out any
lingering microbes. But the vegetables turned to mush in the process.
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.”
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.
In addition to ConAgra, other food giants like Nestlé 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.
Peanuts were considered unlikely culprits for pathogens until earlier this year
when a processing plant in Georgia was blamed for salmonella poisoning that is
estimated to have killed nine people and sickened 27,000. Now, white pepper is
being blamed for dozens of salmonella illnesses on the West Coast, where a
widening recall includes other spices and six tons of frozen egg rolls.
The problem is particularly acute with frozen foods, in which unwitting
consumers who buy these products for their convenience mistakenly think that
their cooking is a matter of taste and not safety.
Federal regulators have pushed companies to beef up their cooking instructions
with the detailed “food safety” guides. But the response has been varied, as a
review of packaging showed. Some manufacturers fail to list explicit
instructions; others include abbreviated guidelines on the side of their boxes
in tiny print. A Hungry-Man pot pie asks consumers to ensure that the pie
reaches a temperature that is 11 degrees short of the government-established
threshold for killing pathogens. Questioned about the discrepancy, Blackstone
acknowledged it was using an older industry standard that it would rectify when
it printed new cartons.
Government food safety officials also point to efforts by the Partnership for
Food Safety Education, a nonprofit group founded by the Clinton administration.
But the partnership consists of a two-person staff and an annual budget of
$300,000. Its director, Shelley Feist, said she has wanted to start a campaign
to advise consumers about frozen foods, but lacks the money.
Estimating the risk to consumers is difficult. The industry says that it is
acting with an abundance of caution, and that big outbreaks of food-borne
illness are rare. At the same time, a vast majority of the estimated 76 million
cases of food-borne illness every year go unreported or are not traced to the
Some food safety experts say they do not think the solution should rest with the
consumer. Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious
Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said companies like
ConAgra were asking too much. “I do not believe that it is fair to put this
responsibility on the back of the consumer, when there is substantial confusion
about what it means to prepare that product,” Dr. Osterholm said.
And the ingredient chain for frozen and other processed foods is poised to get
more convoluted, industry insiders say. While the global market for ingredients
is projected to reach $34 billion next year, the pressure to keep food prices
down in a recession is forcing food companies to look for ways to cut costs.
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. A new industry guide
produced by the group urges companies to test for salmonella and cites recent
outbreaks from cereal, children’s snacks and other dry foods that companies have
mistakenly considered immune to pathogens.
Research on raw ingredients, the guide notes, has found salmonella in 0.14
percent to 1.3 percent of the wheat flour sampled, and up to 8 percent of the
raw spices tested.
ConAgra’s pot pie outbreak began on Feb. 20, 2007, and by the time it trailed
off nine months later 401 cases of salmonella infection had been identified in
41 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which
estimates that for every reported case, an additional 38 are not detected or
It took until June 2007 for health officials to discover the illnesses were
connected, and in October they traced the salmonella to Banquet pot pies made at
ConAgra’s plant in Marshall, Mo.
While investigators who went to the plant were never able to pinpoint the
salmonella source, inspectors for the United States Department of Agriculture
focused on the vegetables, a federal inspection document shows.
ConAgra had not been requiring its suppliers to test the vegetables for
pathogens, even though some were being shipped from Latin America. Nor was
ConAgra conducting its own pathogen tests.
The company says the outbreak and management changes prompted it to undertake a
broad range of safety initiatives, including testing for microbes in all of the
pie ingredients. ConAgra said it was also trying to apply the kill step to as
many ingredients as possible, but had not yet found a way to accomplish it
without making the pies “unpalatable.”
Its Banquet pies now have some of the most graphic food safety instructions,
complete with a depiction of a thermometer piercing the crust.
Pressed to say whether the meals are safe to eat if consumers disregard the
instructions or make an error, Stephanie Childs, a company spokeswoman, said,
“Our goal is to provide the consumer with as safe a product as possible, and we
are doing everything within our ability to provide a safe product to them.”
“We are always improving food safety,” Ms. Childs said. “This is a long ongoing
The U.S.D.A. said it required companies to show that their cooking instructions,
when properly followed, would kill any pathogens. ConAgra says it has done such
testing to validate its instructions.
Getting to ‘Kill Step’
But attempts by The New York Times to follow the directions on several brands of
frozen meals, including ConAgra’s 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.
A ConAgra consumer hotline operator said the claims by microwave-oven
manufacturers about their wattage power could not be trusted, and that any pies
not heated enough should not be eaten. “We definitely want it to reach that
165-degree temperature,” she said. “It’s a safety issue.”
In 2007, the U.S.D.A.’s inspection of the ConAgra plant in Missouri found
records that showed some of ConAgra’s own testing of its directions failed to
achieve “an adequate lethality” in several products, including its Chicken Fried
Beef Steak dinner. Even 18 minutes in a large conventional oven brought the
pudding in a Kid Cuisine Chicken Breast Nuggets meal to only 142 degrees, the
federal agency found.
Besides improving its own cooking directions, ConAgra says it has alerted other
frozen food manufacturers to the food safety issues.
But in the absence of meaningful federal rules, other frozen-dinner makers that
face the same problem with ingredients are taking varied steps, some less
rigorous. Jim Seiple, a food safety official with the Blackstone unit that makes
Swanson and Hungry-Man pot pies, said the company tested for pathogens, but only
after preliminary tests for bacteria that were considered indicators of
pathogens — a method that ConAgra abandoned after its salmonella outbreak.
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.”
Some frozen food companies are taking different approaches to pathogens. Amy’s
Kitchen, a California company that specializes in natural frozen foods, says it
precooks its ingredients to kill any potential pathogens before its pot pies and
other products leave the factory.
Using a bacteriological testing laboratory, The Times checked several pot pies
made by Amy’s and the three leading brands, and while none contained salmonella
or E. coli, one pie each of two brands — Banquet, and the Stouffer’s brand made
by Nestlé — had significant levels of T. coliform.
These bacteria are common in many foods and are not considered harmful. But
their presence in these products include raw ingredients and leave open “a
potential for contamination,” said Harvey Klein, the director of Garden State
Laboratories in New Jersey.
A Nestlé spokeswoman said the company enhanced its food safety instructions in
the wake of ConAgra’s salmonella outbreak.
Danger in the Fridge
ConAgra’s episode has raised its visibility among victims like Ryan Warren, a
25-year-old law school student in Washington. A Seattle lawyer, Bill Marler,
brought suit against ConAgra on behalf of Mr. Warren’s daughter Zoë, who had
just turned 1 year old when she was fed a pot pie that he says put her in the
hospital for a terrifying weekend of high fever and racing pulse.
“You don’t assume these dangers to be right in your freezer,” said Mr. Warren,
who settled with ConAgra. He does not own a food thermometer and was not certain
his microwave oven met the minimum 1,100-wattage requirement in the new pot pie
instructions. “I do think that consumers bear responsibility to reasonably look
out for their well-being, but the entire reason for this product to exist is for
Public health officials who interviewed the Warrens and other victims of the
pot-pie contamination found that fewer than one in three knew the wattage of
their microwave ovens, according to the C.D.C. report on the outbreak. The
report notes, however, that nearly one in four of the victims reported cooking
their pies in conventional ovens.
For more than a decade, the U.S.D.A. has also sought to encourage consumers to
use food thermometers. But the agency’s statistics on how many Americans do so
are discouraging. According to its Web site, not quite half the population has
one, and only 3 percent use it when cooking high-risk foods like hamburgers. No
data was available on how many people use thermometers on pot pies.
Sugar, the nutritional pariah that dentists and dietitians have long reviled,
is enjoying a second act, dressed up as a natural, healthful ingredient.
From the tomato sauce on a Pizza Hut pie called “The Natural,” to the
just-released soda Pepsi Natural, some of the biggest players in the American
food business have started, in the last few months, replacing high-fructose corn
syrup with old-fashioned sugar.
ConAgra uses only sugar or honey in its new Healthy Choice All Natural frozen
entrees. Kraft Foods recently removed the corn sweetener from its salad
dressings, and is working on its Lunchables line of portable meals and snacks.
The turnaround comes after three decades during which high-fructose corn syrup
had been gaining on sugar in the American diet. Consumption of the two finally
drew even in 2003, according to the Department of Agriculture. Recently, though,
the trend has reversed. Per capita, American adults ate about 44 pounds of sugar
in 2007, compared with about 40 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup.
“Sugar was the old devil, and high-fructose corn syrup is the new devil,” said
Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior analyst at Mintel International, a market-research
With sugar sales up, the Sugar Association last year ended its Sweet by Nature
campaign, which pointed out that sugar is found in fruits and vegetables, said
Andy Briscoe, president of the association. “Obviously, demand is moving in the
right direction so we are taking a break,” Mr. Briscoe said.
Blamed for hyperactivity in children and studied as an addictive substance,
sugar has had its share of image problems. But the widespread criticism of
high-fructose corn syrup — the first lady, Michelle Obama, has said she will not
give her children products made with it — has made sugar look good by
Most scientists do not share the perception. Though research is still under way,
many nutrition and obesity experts say sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are
equally bad in excess. But, as is often the case with competing food claims, the
battle is as much about marketing as it is about science.
Some shoppers prefer cane or beet sugar because it is less processed.
High-fructose corn syrup is produced by a complex series of chemical reactions
that includes the use of three enzymes and caustic soda.
Others see the pervasiveness of the inexpensive sweetener as a symbol of the ill
effects of government subsidies given to large agribusiness interests like corn
But the most common argument has to do with the rapid rise of obesity in the
United States, which began in the 1980s, not long after industrial-grade
high-fructose corn syrup was invented. As the amount of the sweetener in the
American diet has expanded, so have Americans.
Although the price differential has since dropped by about half, high-fructose
corn syrup came on the market as much as 20 percent cheaper than sugar. And it
was easier to transport. As a result, the sweetener soon turned up in all kinds
of products, including soda, bread, yogurt, frozen foods and spaghetti sauce.
But with sugar newly ascendant, the makers of corn syrup are fighting back. Last
fall, the Corn Refiners Association mounted a multimillion-dollar defense,
making sure that an advertisement linking to the association’s Web site,
sweetsurprise.com, pops up when someone types “sugar” or “high-fructose corn
syrup” into some search engines.
In one television advertisement, a mother pours fruit punch into a cup while
another scolds her because the punch contains high-fructose corn syrup. When
pressed to explain why it is so bad, the complaining mother is portrayed as a
Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, said consumers were
“When they discover they are being misled into thinking these new products are
healthier, that’s the interesting angle,” Ms. Erickson said in an interview.
Although researchers are looking into the effects of fructose on liver function,
insulin production and other possible contributors to excess weight gain, no
major studies have made a definitive link between high-fructose corn syrup and
poor health. The American Medical Association says that when it comes to
obesity, there is no difference between the syrup and sugar.
And, Ms. Erickson added, the Food and Drug Administration considers both
Dr. Robert H. Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of
California, San Francisco Children’s Hospital, said: “The argument about which
is better for you, sucrose or HFCS, is garbage. Both are equally bad for your
Both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are made from glucose and fructose. The
level of fructose is about 5 percent higher in the corn sweetener.
Dr. Lustig studies the health effects of fructose, particularly on the liver,
where it is metabolized. Part of his research shows that too much fructose — no
matter the source — affects the liver in the same way too much alcohol does.
But all of that is irrelevant to some food manufacturers, who are switching to
sugar as a result of extensive taste testing and consumer surveys.
“For consumers, their perception is reality,” said Jim Sieple, a senior vice
president for Log Cabin syrup, a 120-year-old brand in the Pinnacle Foods Group
that this month announced it had stopped using high-fructose corn syrup.
Sugar’s comeback is not entirely a backlash against the corn sweetener. Market
researchers say that with the economy so unsettled, people want to control what
they can. Choosing organic, less processed or so-called natural foods is a
relatively inexpensive way to do that.
“Rightly or wrongly, that means consumers are more attracted to sugar,” said
Kevin Higar, senior manager at Technomics, a market research company.
Chefs and connoisseurs have also driven sugar’s rehabilitation. Although even a
sugar expert would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the taste of
cane and beet sugar, some enthusiasts have elevated cane sugar to near cult
The Coke that is made from sugar for Jews who avoid corn during Passover has
become so popular among cane-sugar fans that some stores have taken to rationing
At Jason’s, a chain of delis with 200 restaurants in 27 states, cane sugar has
replaced high-fructose corn syrup in everything except a few carbonated
beverages. “Part of this is a huge rebellion against HFCS,” said Daniel Helfman,
a spokesman for the chain, “but part of it is taste.”
To researchers and nutritionists who study obesity and the effects of sugar on
the body, the resurrection of sugar is maddening.
Pat Crawford of the Center for Weight and Health at the University of
California, Berkeley, remembers when sugar was such a loaded word that cereal
makers changed the name of products like Sugar Pops to Corn Pops.
Even though overall consumption of caloric sweeteners is starting to drop, Dr.
Crawford says an empty calorie is still an empty calorie. And it does not matter
whether people think sugar is somehow “retro,” a word used to promote new,
sugar-based versions of Pepsi and Mountain Dew called Throwback.
“If people really want to go back to where we were, that means not putting sugar
in everything,” she said. “It means keeping it to desserts.”
March 19, 2009
Filed at 3:13 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's not just consumer groups anymore that say the U.S.
food safety system is broken.
The head of Kellogg Co., the world's largest cereal maker, planned to urge
Congress on Thursday to revamp how the government polices his industry. Kellogg
lost $70 million in the recent salmonella outbreak, after it had to recall
millions of packages of peanut butter crackers and cookies.
Chief executive David Mackay wants food safety placed under a new leader in the
Health and Human Services Department. He also called for new requirements that
all food companies have written safety plans, annual federal inspections of
facilities that make high-risk foods and other reforms.
A copy of his statement, to be delivered before a House Energy and Commerce
subcommittee, was obtained in advance by The Associated Press.
Mackay's strong call for major changes could boost President Barack Obama's
efforts to overhaul the system. Last week Obama launched a special review of
food safety programs, which are split among several departments and agencies,
and rely in some cases on decades-old laws. Critics say more funding is needed
for inspections and basic research.
''The recent outbreak illustrated that the U.S. food safety system must be
strengthened,'' Mackay said in his prepared remarks. ''We believe the key is to
focus on prevention, so that potential sources of contamination are identified
and properly addressed before they become actual food safety problems.''
The salmonella outbreak has sickened at least 691 people and is blamed for nine
deaths. The source was a small Georgia peanut processing plant, which allegedly
shipped products that managers knew were contaminated with salmonella.
The plant produced not only peanut butter, but peanut paste, an ingredient found
in foods from granola bars and dog biscuits, to ice cream and cake. More than
3,490 products have been recalled, including some Kellogg's Austin and Keebler
peanut butter sandwich crackers. The Georgia plant has been shut down and its
owner, Peanut Corp. of America, is under criminal investigation by the Justice
FDA inspectors swooped down on the Georgia plant in January and found multiple
sanitary violations. The problems included moisture leaks, improper storage and
openings that could allow rodents into the facility. FDA tests found salmonella
contamination within the plant. After invoking bioterrorism laws, the FDA
obtained Peanut Corp. records that showed the company's own tests repeatedly
found salmonella in finished products.
How persistent problems at the Georgia plant managed to escape the attention of
state inspectors and independent private auditors is one of the main unanswered
questions in the investigation.
With the economy crippled, joblessness at a 14-year high and more financial
bad news almost certain to come, there was a lot less, materially speaking, for
thousands to be grateful for as they gathered around Thanksgiving tables.
For many, the elation that followed the election of the nation’s first black
president was tempered by more immediate concerns, like where the next paycheck
might come from. And yet coast to coast, people approached Thanksgiving with
something close to a gritty resolve this year, determined to find a few hours of
respite from their worries.
“I spend a lot of time at night, ruminating how I’m going to get by,” said Tracy
Louis-Marie, a mother of two who lives in Los Angeles. Her husband is an
illustrator, and his workload has fallen by half in the last two months. “I’d
like these three hours this afternoon to be an oasis of stress-free time,” Ms.
Some people pared their dinners. Fixings were less lavish, relatives canceled
long-distance travel plans and hosts had potluck meals to spread the cost. Ms.
Louis-Marie prepared an all-organic Thanksgiving last year, but this year she
could afford to go organic with only one dish: the bird. Yet, in the spirit of
the holiday, she invited a relative stranger, a dog-walker from her
neighborhood, over to eat.
For Matt Egan, a newly unemployed father of three who lives in Mount Gilead,
Ohio, the day was darkened with fears about how his family would make it through
Mr. Egan received an automated call last Saturday, informing him that he was
being laid off from his job as a presser at a nearby Whirlpool factory. Last
week, his wife, Tracy, also lost her job as an information technology
specialist. The couple, both 35, spent Thanksgiving at the home of Mr. Egan’s
father, after loading their 6-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins into the
family car, all the while trying to keep up a cheerful front.
“Now we’re just stunned, walking around trying to figure out what to do,” Mr.
Egan said. “There’s only so much pessimism we can let in, because we’ve got
Other families had especially lavish feasts, as if in defiance of the hard
Tanya Harper, whose hair salon in Manhattan has seen a 30 percent drop in
business, spent the afternoon with 150 of her relatives and friends in a banquet
hall in Jamaica, Queens. Five of the oldest family members died this past year,
so the surviving relatives, who are from Barbados, resolved to ward off sadness
by throwing a huge party, replete with African dancers, five turkeys, six hams
and Caribbean dishes, like flying fish.
“We are not rich,” Ms. Harper said, “but our family needs to get together more
often, and enjoy each other, and give thanks.”
Many people took extra comfort in their families this year. In Miami, Jorge and
Caridad Brenlla served dinner for seven: turkey and traditional Cuban fare, like
black beans, rice and fried plantains. Mr. Brenlla, who is 57 and a contractor,
said demand for his work slowed to a crawl this year, as Florida bore much of
the brunt of the housing crash. Mr. Brenlla is also a Republican, and remains
deeply disappointed about the defeat of Senator John McCain of Arizona in the
presidential election. Still, the family’s Thanksgiving was especially joyous
because Mr. Brenlla’s sister was visiting from Havana, and the siblings had not
seen each other in 27 years.
In Democratic homes, joy at Barack Obama’s election victory helped lift foul
moods. “For us, Obama winning the election is a big step forwards,” said Jamie
Robinson, 31, who lives in Chicago, and is of African-American, Irish and Native
In a Las Vegas suburb, at a yearly gathering of about a dozen gay and lesbian
friends at the home of Sigrid Brunel and Argentina Kapp, the mood was far
cheerier than last year, when anxiety about the coming election and anger about
the war in Iraq clouded much of the discussion. Yet the guests were outraged
this year at the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which banned, again,
For the most part, Thanksgiving dinners were unchanged from previous years, even
as families cut corners elsewhere.
In the Bronx, upwards of 30 guests had been invited to the four-bedroom
apartment shared by one extended family, comprising the Roberthsons and the
Moores. Many in the family are on a budget, yet their Thanksgiving spread was
nonetheless a showcase of abundance, and included cornbread, macaroni and
cheese, fried chicken, collard greens, candied yams, pot roasts and four types
In their spacious apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Jake and Amy
Schrader, the parents of 5-year-old twins, spent Thursday afternoon preparing
hearty Thanksgiving fare. They have been the hosts of the holiday dinner for the
past four years, and seven relatives joined them on Thursday. The dishes were
the same, though this year there was a side of denial: Mr. Schrader, an equities
trader, has stopped opening the envelopes containing statements for his
retirement savings and the twins’ college funds.
In Chicago, Dolores Hernandez, a 52-year-old home health care nurse, celebrated
with her husband, Carlos, 50, their two college-age children and several elderly
relatives, in their home in the northwest part of the city.
Mr. Hernandez owns a Chicago restaurant, Don Carlos, which has been devastated
by the economic turndown. So Ms. Hernandez has taken on three nursing jobs in
the past year, and usually works 60 hours a week. But she took Thanksgiving off.
“We’ll be talking about politics, and, of course, the bad economy, which has
affected our own family,” Ms. Hernandez said. “My nephew recently moved in with
us, because he had his hours cut at the dealership where he works, and he can’t
afford rent anymore.”
Ms. Hernandez’s nephew opted to eat Thanksgiving with other relatives, but the
Hernandezes still prepared a lavish spread. They are from Mexico yet they have
wholly embraced traditional American Thanksgiving fare, with one exception:
jalapeño-cilantro salsa, a family specialty.
Reporting was contributed by Karen Ann Cullotta in Chicago,
Steven Freiss in Las
Vegas, Carmen Gentile in Miami,