ConAgra defends decision not to recall pot pies

Thursday, October 11, 2007 | 5:04 p.m. CDT; updated 7:42 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

OMAHA — A day after warning consumers about the link between pot pies and a salmonella outbreak, officials from ConAgra Foods Inc. and USDA defended the decision not to recall the product.

The pot pies were being pulled from store shelves Wednesday at the company’s request, but a prominent food poisoning lawyer criticized the decision not to recall the Banquet and generic pot pies.

ConAgra’s pot pies have been linked to at least 139 cases of salmonella in 30 states. Consumers have been warned not to eat the pot pies, and ConAgra is offering refunds. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at least 20 people have been hospitalized, but so far no deaths have been linked to the pot pies.

ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said the Omaha-based company decided with USDA officials that a consumer alert would more appropriate than a recall, and consumer interests would still be protected.

“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.

The largest numbers of salmonella cases confirmed so far have been in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture’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.

But Bill Marler, of Seattle-based law firm Marler Clark, said recalling the product would have been the right course of action.

“Frankly, given the numbers of ill persons ... the responsible thing for ConAgra to do is to recall all implicated product,” said Marler, whose firm handles many food-borne illness cases. “Chicken and turkey pot pies should not be contaminated with salmonella.”

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.

Childs said Wednesday that the company 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. 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 one of the issues with the nation’s food safety system.

Earlier this year, when the CDC linked a different ConAgra product, peanut butter, to a different salmonella outbreak, ConAgra recalled all of its peanut butter.

But peanut is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, while pot pies are regulated by the USDA.

The company faces several lawsuits filed by people who ate ConAgra’s peanut butter, which includes Peter Pan peanut butter. The CDC linked the peanut butter to a salmonella outbreak that eventually sickened at least 625 people in 47 states.

ConAgra resumed shipping Peter Pan in August.

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

A Citigroup analyst said the decision not to recall the pot pies should help ConAgra’s profits.

Analyst David Driscoll said in a research note that he expects the pot pie issue to be resolved in less than six months, and he predicted the alert would hurt earnings per share by no more than a penny.

Driscoll said the Banquet chicken and turkey pot pie business generated about $100 million in sales a year for ConAgra.

ConAgra shares fell 22 cents, or less than 1 percent, Wednesday to close at $24.83.

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