ConAgra Foods Inc.'s delay in recalling pot pies increased the chance that more people would become sick, thus exposing a key weakness in America's food safety system: voluntary recalls.
"It's clear that this recall wasn't well handled, and the outbreak may well grow," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's food safety division.
ConAgra issued a health alert Tuesday afternoon and asked stores across the U.S. to stop selling Banquet and store-brand chicken and turkey pot pies, but the company did not recall the pies until Thursday evening. The company and federal officials warned customers not to eat the pot pies and to throw them away, and ConAgra is offering refunds.
The recall, which also includes beef pot pies to avoid confusion, affects all varieties 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.
Even though the pot pies made by ConAgra have been linked to at least 174 cases of salmonella in 32 states, the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not have the authority to require the company to recall the pot pies. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at least 33 people have been hospitalized as part of the ongoing outbreak, but so far no deaths have been reported.
ConAgra spokeswoman Melissa Baron said Friday that the company still did not know any more about the problem with its pot pies than it did when the alert was issued. She said recalling the product was a precaution.
"We want to make absolutely certain that consumers are safe, and while the investigation into the matter continues, we wanted to reinforce that consumers should not eat these products," Baron said.
USDA spokeswoman Amanda Eamich said ConAgra made the decision to recall the pot pies on its own. USDA investigators were still working to find the source of the salmonella contamination, she said.
Bill Marler, a lawyer from Seattle-based firm Marler Clark, said if anyone bought ConAgra's pot pies after the company knew about the link to the salmonella outbreak, the company could face punitive damages in a lawsuit because the product wasn't immediately recalled.
"Without a recall, the stuff was still on the shelves and being sold," said Marler, who handles many food-borne illness cases. His firm already has filed a lawsuit against ConAgra over the pot pies.
"You're looking at the perfect example of a broken system," Rep. Rosa DeLauro said about the pot pie recall.
Earlier this year, the Connecticut Democrat helped introduce legislation that would give the FDA the power to order mandatory recalls of adulterated food products, plus establish fines for companies that don't promptly report contaminated products.
"It is a voluntary recall, so it is up to the industry," DeLauro said.
ConAgra shut down the pot pie production line at its Marshall, Missouri, plant, but the rest of the plant, which employs about 650 people, has continued operating.
"No other products, including Marie Callender's pot pies, are in question," Baron said. The Marie Callender's pot pies are made at a different plant in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
ConAgra officials would not say how many pot pies are affected by the recall or how many ConAgra produces. But a Citigroup analyst has said the Banquet chicken and turkey pot pie business generated about $100 million (70.56 million EUR) in sales a year for ConAgra.
Baron said the company does not know yet how much the recall will cost.
Salmonella poisoning can cause diarrhea, fever, dehydration, abdominal pain and vomiting. Most cases are caused by undercooked eggs and chicken.
About 40,000 cases are reported each year in the U.S., but the CDC estimates that the actual number of infections may be 30 times higher because many milder cases are not diagnosed or reported. Most of the 600 deaths salmonella causes each year are among people with weaker immune systems such as the elderly or very young.