SYLVESTER, Ga. — Public health officials from several states have detected the presence of salmonella in jars of Peter Pan peanut butter and Wal-Mart's private-label Great Value brand of peanut butter that were manufactured in a single ConAgra Foods facility here, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced late last month.
Last Tuesday the CDC reported that 370 persons from 42 states have been infected with the outbreak strain Salmonella Tennessee. Among 294 patients for whom clinical information is available, 60 were hospitalized. No deaths had been attributed to this infection as of last week. Onset dates, which are known for 256 patients, ranged from Aug. 1, 2006, to Feb. 16, 2007.
The Washington-based Food and Drug Administration is working with ConAgra to identify the source of the contamination in the plant, which has ceased production.
In addition to removing all impacted peanut butter from its shelves, as an added precautionary measure Wal-Mart put a sales restriction on the recalled products so that, should one inadvertently be scanned, a restriction notice will come up for the cashier.
“Food safety is always a top priority at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club,” the retailer said in a statement. “We are working very closely with ConAgra to fully understand the details of this situation.”
The announcement that salmonella has been detected in jars of Wal-Mart's private-label Great Value brand peanut butter comes on the heels of another company-brand product recall. Last month boxes of Giant Eagle Egg Free Pasta Ribbons were removed from 227 Giant Eagle stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland because the product may have contained eggs.
The American Italian Pasta Co., which manufactures Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle's private-label egg-free pasta, attributed the problem to human error.
“We deeply regret that human error inadvertently caused one of our pasta products delivered to Giant Eagle stores to be improperly packaged,” said Jim Fogarty, chief executive officer of AIPC, in a statement. “Working with Giant Eagle we have taken steps to remove all unsold packages of the product from stores and to notify consumers of the recall of this product. We have also conducted a thorough review of our internal processes and procedures and added even greater redundancy to our controls to prevent this from happening in the future.”
Although Giant Eagle has not been made aware of any customer illnesses related to consumption of product that was misidentified as egg-free, the situation may have damaged the trust of vegan consumers or shoppers who suffer from egg allergies.
To help mitigate risks associated with products that bear a retailer's name but are manufactured by an independent supplier, John Dix, president of Columbus, Ohio-based management consulting firm Business Development Index, advises retailers to perform due diligence when sourcing private-label providers. He recommends frequent manufacturer plant visits and urges retailers to request health and safety records.
“Having the retailer take an active role doesn't guarantee anything, but the more they're involved, the better,” said Dix. “Manufacturers have product liability insurance, so that they're covered in terms of lawsuits if someone gets violently ill or killed, but the retailer isn't going to get paid for any loss of reputation.”
Dix noted that Wal-Mart, Giant Eagle, H.E. Butt, Publix and Safeway are among the retailers that actively work to ensure the quality of their private-label products.
“ConAgra is also a good company,” he said. “On the whole, they're as good as any company in the food business, so I'm not sure what happened here.”
A class-action lawsuit was filed against the manufacturer last month in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington on behalf of individuals who became ill with salmonella infections linked to the peanut butter.
“We have been contacted by over 2,200 families who consumed peanut butter and are looking to pursue legal claims against ConAgra since the FDA announced the recall of ConAgra manufactured peanut butter on Feb. 14,” said William Marler, managing partner of Seattle-based Marler Clark, in a statement. “We feel that a class action is the most efficient means for achieving fair compensation for people who were not hospitalized, but have strong evidence of salmonella infection.”
The class action excludes any individuals who were hospitalized or died as a result of their illness, but covers those who suffered from either lab-confirmed infection or symptoms consistent with salmonella infection after consuming peanut butter linked to the recall. Marler Clark has also filed at least two separate suits on behalf of additional victims. ConAgra spokesman Chris Kicher declined to comment on the pending litigation.
ConAgra recalled the peanut butter on Feb. 14 after epidemiologic studies comparing foods that ill and well persons said they had eaten showed that consumption of both Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter was statistically associated with illness and therefore the likely source of the outbreak.
“We are truly sorry for any harm that our peanut butter products may have caused,” said Gary Rodkin, CEO, ConAgra, in a statement. “Our immediate recall of 100% of our product was taken with the assumption that a link could be found between our peanut butter and the reported cases of Salmonella. We are committed to taking all the reasonable steps to remedy the situation.”
ConAgra has authorized retailers to accept returns of open or unopened jars of Peter Pan peanut butter beginning with the product code 2111. Consumers can also send peanut butter lids or labels to ConAgra for a full refund. Last month ConAgra provided a preliminary estimate of a charge of $50 million to $60 million, or 6 to 8 cents per share, for the current quarter related to the recall.
“We continue to receive returns of peanut butter at our stores across our five-state market areas,” said Maria Brous, spokeswoman of Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets.