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Pundit’s Mailbag — Thermometers
In Refrigerators

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 18, 2006

Received a note from Joe McGuire, Division Vice President of Ready Pac, Inc. Joe is based in Branchburg, New Jersey, and I absolutely must publish his missive, which responds to a piece we wrote suggesting that we might need “…a law that requires new home refrigerators to have built-in thermometers and the ability to set the actual temperature as opposed to just a wheel that you can spin to get “colder” or “warmer”.

Joe sent this trenchant commentary our way:

I am trying to determine if you are being sarcastic with your idea of more legislation out of Washington. We don’t need the Nanny State in our refrigerators; we can regulate our own food temperature, thank you very much.

We must remember that government has two objects: position and power. The free markets work and they must be protected.

Joe, if you ever find your way to South Florida, look me up because drinks are on me. I will never forget Joe, because he is the first person ever to accuse the Pundit of excessive socialism.

Alas, we would have liked to be sarcastic about this issue as it does smack of government meddling in everything. However, it was in fact a real response to the botulism outbreak on certain Bolthouse-produced 100% carrot juice products. This issue got lost in the spinach/E. coli imbroglio, but is very important. You can review our coverage of the matter here.

People are paralyzed and Bolthouse and the FDA believe the most likely cause is that consumers did not maintain the proper temperature. One problem is that different authorities have different opinions on what the proper temperature is. Another problem is that many labels simply say “Keep Refrigerated” instead of indicating a particular temperature.

But even if a consumer knew what temperature to keep something at, how would a typical consumer know how to do it? Refrigerators don’t generally have temperature settings. They have a dial that says warmer or colder.

I’ve had the Bolthouse carrot juice in my own refrigerator. I haven’t the foggiest idea if it was kept at the right temperature. Now that is no big deal if we are talking about maintaining the right temperature so my produce doesn’t go rotten so fast. But if a mistake can cause enough bacteria grow that someone can get paralyzed, we better give the consumer some tools to deal with that responsibility.

If we were so purely capitalistic, then the rule would be “caveat emptor” or “let the buyer beware”. And since botulism is a possible natural condition on carrot juice, if someone got sick it would be an “assumption of the risk” by the buyer and, as long as the seller didn’t intentionally conceal anything, it would be the buyer’s problem. But that is not our world.

Many things cost almost nothing, and because of the efficiencies of mass production, a requirement for a thermostat in a refrigerator as opposed to a dial would cost very little. If consumers knew that they were responsible for maintaining certain temperatures, it is reasonable to think almost everyone would want such a thing.

In a world where New York is banning trans fat, Chicago is banning Foie Gras and McDonalds is being sued for making people fat, it seems to me a transgression of free markets of the smallest order to empower consumers to take care of themselves and their families via this proposal.

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