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Pot Pie Salmonella Poisoning
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ConAgra Banquet Pot Pie Recall Delay Worsened Salmonella Outbreak

Oct 15, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

The ConAgra pot pie Salmonella outbreak would not have become so extensive had the company not botched its pot pie recall.   Today, the Salmonella from tainted ConAgra pot pies has spread to 32 states, sickening 174 people. But if ConAgra had not insisted for so long that its pot pies were safe, some of those victims could have been spared. Now, ConAgra’s slow action is raising questions about the effectiveness of a food safety system that puts decisions about recalls in the hands of the very companies responsible for manufacturing contaminated foods.

Last Tuesday, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a health alert after ConAgra’s Banquet and store brand pot pies were implicated in 139 cases of Salmonella poisoning around the country.  At the time, consumers were warned not to eat turkey and chicken pot pies manufactured by ConAgra.   The alert applied to the company’s Banquet brand pot pies, and to pies sold under the store brands Albertson's, Hill Country Fare, Food Lion, Great Value (sold at Wal-Mart stores), Kirkwood, Kroger, Meijer and Western Family.  But that day, no recall was issued and ConAgra insisted that its pot pies were safe.  Instead, consumers who failed to cook the pies properly were to blame for the Salmonella outbreak, the company claimed.

It wasn’t until late Thursday that ConAgra decided to recall the Salmonella pot pies.   This came after it was revealed that several state health department officials had asked the company to get the pies off the market.   At the time, ConAgra refused, but the company did a quick about-face once the health officials’ request was made public.  But by then, 165 people had become ill.  Over the weekend those numbers grew to 174, and of those 33 people are hospitalized with severe Salmonella symptoms.

Critics say that the ConAgra pot pie Salmonella outbreak points to serious weaknesses in the current US food safety apparatus.  Specifically, the voluntary recall system can allow outbreaks of food borne illness to become far more extensive than they would if the federal government could order food off the market.  But right now, that just isn’t allowed.   While agencies like the USDA and the Food & Drug Administration can ask a company to recall a defective food, the manufacturer gets the final say.  And sometimes, as in the case of the ConAgra pot pies, they drag their feet.   Over just a few days, hundreds more people could then be exposed to a contaminated food.

Now, groups like Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America are pushing for changes to the food recall system.  First and foremost, they say government regulators should be able to order mandatory recalls when a product has been linked to an outbreak of food poisoning.  They also want to see fines levied against companies that don’t report potentially contaminated products immediately.

It could be weeks or months before it is clear how many cases of Salmonella poisoning were the result of ConAgra’s delay of its pot pie recall.  But when profits are at stake, a company like ConAgra cannot be expected to do the right thing.  And when that happens, government regulators should have the power to step in and protect consumers.


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