Thursday, October 11, 2007

ConAgra Refuses to Recall Pot Pies

Despite pleas from Oregon and Minnesota, the company issues consumer alerts for poultry, but not beef, varieties

The Oregonian reports:

ConAgra Foods Inc. is refusing to recall Banquet-brand and other potpies tied to a national salmonella outbreak, rejecting direct pleas by Oregon and Minnesota health officials.

The state officials say the company needs to recall all of its potpies because the source of the salmonella has not been identified. Doing anything less, they say, allows potentially dangerous food to remain on the market and confuses consumers.

The company says a recall is unnecessary. It contends that contamination is limited to its poultry potpies. Risks can be eliminated, the company says, by instructing consumers to cook the pies thoroughly enough to kill salmonella bacteria.

The dispute highlights a long-standing limitation in America's system for safeguarding the food supply: State officials who most frequently unearth the cause of foodborne illness have no regulatory authority over food makers. Federal officials can ask companies to recall food, but that process can take days or weeks.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has come under fire for waiting 18 days last month to request a recall after E. coli was discovered in Topps Meat Co. ground beef.

This has been a year of a number of high-profile domestic food recalls, as well as food and consumer-product warnings on imports from China. In the spring, ConAgra issued a massive recall of its Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter brands after a multistate salmonella outbreak.

Public-health officers in both Oregon and Minnesota said they urged a potpie recall in phone conversations with ConAgra executives Monday and Tuesday. Instead, the Nebraska-based company, with annual sales of more than $12 billion, halted production and issued a consumer alert for its frozen potpies containing chicken and turkey.

States, on the other hand, are telling consumers to throw out every potpie under the Banquet brand as well as store brands including Great Value (sold at Wal-Mart) and Kroger. All are made at ConAgra's Marshall, Mo., plant.

Pies tied to illness

In a conference call Wednesday among state and federal health officials, several state representatives said potpies could still be found in stores, said Dr. William E. Keene, a senior communicable disease epidemiologist at the Oregon Public Health Division.

"A lot of people were saying that this alert was not adequate because consumers were not getting the kind of unambiguous message they'd get if there was a recall," Keene said.

The potpies have been tied to at least 139 illnesses in 30 states, including two confirmed Oregon cases. Keene said a third Oregon case is suspected but not confirmed and for every confirmed case, two dozen or more go unreported.

Salmonella infections can cause severe diarrhea and fever.

In Oregon and across the country, health investigators had searched in vain since May for the outbreak's cause.

But last Thursday, a Minnesota state epidemiologist, Steph Meyer, tied three salmonella cases to the potpies. Two previous victims were re-interviewed and recalled eating the pies, which are enormously popular because they are cheap (50 cents or so), can stay in the freezer for ages and be microwaved in a few minutes.

The same day, Minnesota health officials notified other states and the federal government of their findings.

On Monday, after federal officials said it might take a day or more to go through channels and ask ConAgra for a recall -- nearly all food recalls are voluntary -- Meyer's boss and Keene of Oregon decided to take their concerns directly to the source.

In conference calls Monday and Tuesday, Keene and Dr. Kirk Smith, supervisor of the foodborne diseases unit of the Minnesota Department of Health, made their case for a recall.

"In effect, they turned us down," Keene said.

Smith said the company did not want to include its beef products in the consumer alert it elected to send, instead arguing that poultry -- notorious for salmonella problems -- was to blame. ConAgra said the solution would be to ensure that consumers cooked the pies longer.

"A fear out there"

Smith and Keene contended, though, that all pies are at risk because the source of contamination remains unclear.

"We don't know if it's in the uncooked dough or where it is," Smith said. "What we tried to impress on them was that we thought they'd want to be as inclusive as possible."

In other words, a total recall, which Smith and Keene say remains warranted.

"I don't think it was a good decision on their part," Keene said. "But it's their decision."

In the meantime, a ConAgra spokeswoman said the company is cooperating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine the cause.

Spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said ConAgra's decision to alert consumers and not recall all potpies was consistent with the company's plans to change labeling on how to cook the pies.

"All of the information provided to us indicates that this is related to a certain type of potpie," she said. "We're moving forward with plans to enhance our cooking directions."

The company has not decided exactly how to change those directions, she said. Instructions vary depending upon microwave power, for example. In any case, the pie's interior temperature must reach 165 degrees to be fully cooked.

Childs said she was unsure what information ConAgra had pointing to poultry as the contamination source.

At Portland-area grocery stores, consumers started returning potpies early Wednesday morning. James Grant, manager of Gresham's Food 4 Less, said employees first removed turkey and chicken pies from freezers after a supplier notice was sent out.

Later, Grant said, he had the meat pies removed as consumers asked about whether they were safe.

"There's a fear out there because of what has happened in spinach and other foods," Grant said, referring to an E. coli outbreak last year. "We took all the potpies out basically just to not have to field the questions."