Thursday, October 11, 2007

ConAgra Asks Stores to Quit Selling Pies

The AP reports:

ConAgra Foods Inc. has asked stores to stop selling pot pies linked to a salmonella outbreak and is offering refunds for the turkey and chicken-filled meals.

The company and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday defended their decision not to immediately recall the product.

ConAgra asked stores nationwide to pull the Banquet and generic brand chicken and turkey pot pies after two East Coast grocery chains made their own choice to remove the product from their shelves.

The pot pies made by ConAgra have been linked to at least 152 cases of salmonella in 31 states. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at least 20 people have been hospitalized as part of the ongoing outbreak, but so far no deaths have been linked to the pot pies.

The company and federal officials warned customers not to eat the pot pies and to throw them away, and ConAgra is offering refunds.

ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said the Omaha-based company decided with USDA officials that the consumer alert they issued Tuesday would be more appropriate than a recall.

"From the consumer perspective, there's not much difference," Childs said.

Even though the pot pies have not been recalled, Childs said ConAgra asked stores to pull all the pies with the identifying "P-9" code on them from store shelves and not sell them.

"We've taken this step knowing that we may need to take additional measures as we learn more from the ongoing investigation that is being led by the USDA," Childs said.

ConAgra officials have said they believe the pot pies are safe when they are thoroughly cooked according to the package directions. The company is revising the cooking directions on its pot pie packages to clarify how long the pies should be cooked in different microwaves.

The Giant Food and Stop & Shop supermarket chains said Wednesday that they were pulling the questionable pot pies from their stores' shelves as a precaution. Giant Food has 186 stores in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C., while Stop & Shop has 389 stores in seven northeastern states.

Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said three investigators are at the ConAgra plant looking for problems with a specific product or production date, and without that connection, a recall wouldn't be ordered.

"As we continue our investigation, we felt it would be the best thing to do is get the word out," Eamich said.

ConAgra shut down the pot pie production line at its Marshall, Mo., plant, but the rest of the plant, which employs about 650 people, has continued operating, Childs said Wednesday. All of the pot pies made at the plant in question have "P-9" printed on the side of the box as part of a code above the use-by date.

The way the USDA has handled the pot pie concern highlights inconsistencies in the nation's food safety system.

Earlier this year, when the CDC linked ConAgra peanut butter to a salmonella outbreak that eventually sickened at least 625 people in 47 states, the company recalled all of its peanut butter. But peanut butter is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, while pot pies are regulated by the USDA.

Salmonella sickens about 40,000 people a year in the U.S. and kills about 600. Most of the deaths are among people with weaker immune systems such as the elderly or very young.

Salmonella poisoning can cause diarrhea, fever, dehydration, abdominal pain and vomiting. Most cases are caused by undercooked eggs and chicken.

A Minnesota couple sued ConAgra Foods Inc. Thursday for selling the pot pies they believe made their young daughter ill with salmonella. The federal suit, filed in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, seeks damages of more than $75,000 and reimbursement for medical costs.

Consumers who want a refund for their pot pie should send the side panel of the package that contains the "P-9" location code to the following address: ConAgra Foods, Dept. BQPP, P.O. Box 3768, Omaha, NE 68103-0768. Consumers with questions can call the company toll free at 866-484-8671.