Our Cooling Relationship with the Frozen-Food Industry

How did major manufacturers decide it was a good idea to delegate responsibility for food-safety inspections to home cooks?
frozen food

Okay, let me try to get this straight. I bring home a frozen potpie from the supermarket—no doubt the brand that assures me it’s “made with carefully chosen premium ingredients and specially prepared to give you and your family a warm feeling of comfort and wholesomeness while enjoying the taste of a home-cooked meal.” I put it in the microwave, and a few minutes later an electronic beep-beep-beep summons the happy family to the table. Time to eat! But hold on. According to the latest directives handed down from the frozen-food industry, I’m now supposed to check the potpie to see whether or not it’s done. And “done,” which once upon a time meant “golden and bubbling,” doesn’t mean that anymore. The proper translation seems to be “cooked to the point where it can’t possibly pose the risk of imminent disease or death—can it?” In other words, I have to probe the pie in several different places with a food thermometer. A food thermometer? And I’m supposed to continue this exercise until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees throughout the pie, at which point I can sit down to a cozy meal “made with love, care and all kinds of special touches. Just like your grandma would have made.” Right, that would be my grandma the microbiologist, the one who wears safety goggles and a surgical mask in the kitchen. Seconds, dear?

The news that makers of frozen foods now expect consumers to do their own food-safety testing shouldn’t really have surprised me. After all, this is an industry so prone to wishful thinking that it once confidently marketed frozen whale steaks and was astonished when the product flopped. Hence it must have seemed completely logical, over in that big corner office where common sense is never invited to the meeting, to start warning homemakers that from now on they’re going to need precision instruments whenever they heat up a burrito. What a bold new way to respond to the increasing number of food-poisoning outbreaks traced to frozen meals! Surely nobody expects a great nation to meet a public-health challenge of such magnitude by relying on giant conglomerates with lavishly equipped laboratories, stacks of research and squadrons of scientists and technicians. Nope, this is a job for Mom.

The chutzpah isn’t the only aspect of the current safety campaign that’s hard to believe. What’s really amazing is the way the frozen-food industry has stealthily changed the terms of its relationship with consumers, like one of those picture-perfect husbands who turns out to have another wife and family in the next town. When frozen entrées and side dishes began pouring onto the market in the years following World War II, the advertising delivered a message that remained remarkably consistent until very recently. Here’s a typical ad from the early 1950s, the dawn of the frozen potpie era: “Grandmother at her best couldn’t make them any better. Hearty chunks of juicy chicken and rich, savory gravy in an exceptionally tender, flaky crust. So easy for you. No thawing. No dishwashing.” With only minor variations, these themes would dominate the rhetoric around frozen food for the next half century. And with them, of course, was the subtext: Stand back, little lady, and leave the cooking to us. We’re the experts. Then came the industry nightmare of 2007, when some 15,000 cases of food poisoning prompted the recall of millions of frozen potpies. After that, the industry decided its traditional arrangement with home cooks needed a rewrite, and the longtime message was thrown into reverse. Hey, back to the kitchen! And don’t forget the white coat and hairnet. We’re not the experts anymore. You are.

Long before American homemakers were assigned to pathogen patrol, however, their relationship with frozen food had already shifted onto unfamiliar turf, thanks to an alluring newcomer known as the microwave oven. By the end of the 1980s, microwave ovens—practically unheard of just a decade earlier—had become standard equipment in American kitchens, and the frozen-food industry was scrambling to get with the program. Every company introduced truckloads of new products, and although many were short-lived (I’m remembering, not fondly, an orange-flavored microwaveable milkshake) the idea that a frozen blob would become dinner almost faster than you could put a plate on the table began to distort the very notion of time as it applied to food. Thirty minutes became an unthinkable demand on a busy life. While directions for heating in a conventional oven still appear on frozen-food packages, it’s hard to believe anybody still makes such a choice—or consciously makes a choice at all. Frozen meals and microwave ovens are virtually a single entity.

But microwaving turned out to be an inexact science, far more so than the digital displays blinking smartly in every kitchen would suggest. The food heats unevenly; ovens vary greatly in wattage; and the impersonal, hands-off nature of the interaction means we never quite know what’s going on. Even the most precise package directions are going to be imprecise in practice, because neither the manufacturer nor the home cook is ever fully in charge. Toss in one more factor—a global food system far more complicated than it was at the start of the microwave age—and you can see why the frozen-food industry wants Mom to keep a chemistry book next to the recipe file. These days many manufacturers can’t begin to know where all their ingredients came from, or what’s happened to them along the way. Mystery meats are back, and they aren’t just for school lunch anymore.

For a lot of people—including, I’m guessing, most readers of this website—the solution here is obvious. Cook real food. But something else is at stake, and it has to do with how we’re all going to live from now on with our errant partner, the food industry. We can’t get along without it, so we’ve got to be tougher about getting along with it—asking the right questions, never believing the claptrap, and taking back some of the power and initiative we traded for convenience long ago. No, you don’t have to start measuring flour and shortening for a homemade potpie. Just do what Grandma used to do—make a nice chicken salad instead.

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