Will it be salmonella-free? ConAgra Foods launches new line of peanut butter spreads

By March 2007, salmonella in Peter Pan peanut butter had sickened 628 people in 47 states and caused the company to shut down its Sylvester, Georgia, manufacturing facility; the contamination was likely due to a leaky roof and faulty sprinklers.

Last week, ConAgra Foods announced the launch of a new line of natural peanut butter spreads from its Peter Pan brand.

The three no-stir varieties are made with 100% natural ingredients and contain no high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, trans fat or preservatives.

Hopefully, or scientifically, they won’t contain any salmonella.

It’s the medium and the message: rapid reliable relevant repeated messages to combat recall fatigue

Until three years ago, Kenneth Maxwell enjoyed Banquet chicken and turkey pot pies so much he ate them three or four times a week. They were easy to prepare, and Maxwell could eat one for lunch and quickly return to work as an electrician.

When cases of salmonella poisoning led the pies’ manufacturer, ConAgra Foods, to issue a product recall in the fall of 2007, Maxwell did not hear about it and continued to eat them. He bought several pot pies about two weeks after the recall was launched, when they should have been pulled from store shelves, and became violently ill, he said.

Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune reports this morning that Maxwell’s experience reflects common problems with food recalls: They routinely fail to recover all of the product they seek and, according to experts, sometimes even leave tainted foods in stores, putting consumers at risk of becoming ill from potentially deadly foodborne pathogens.

If consumers are suffering from recall fatigue, what about retailers who are supposed to get potentially contaminated product off the shelves?

Communications about recalls with both the public and retailers, must be rapid, reliable, repeated and relevant, and that the produce outbreaks of 2006 marked significant changes in how recall stories were being told on Internet-based networking like YouTube, wikipedia, and blogs.

The Tribune story says a spokesman for Jewel-Osco’s corporate parent said relying on the media, posting shelf notices and making sure store employees are prepared to answer customers’ questions all have worked with recalls in the past.

Safeway, the parent of Dominick’s food stores, contacts shoppers directly in some recalls — typically smaller ones, said spokesman Brian Dowling. But in larger recalls, he said the company’s stores rely on other methods to get the word out, such as notices on store shelves and stories in newspapers and on TV and radio.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the Government’s Products Recall app for the Android smartphone at USA.gov website.

And it will be the same boring message. Marshall McLuhan famously said “The medium is the message” (that’s him above, right, in a scene from the movie, Annie Hall). With food safety recalls, it’s the medium and the message, if you want to get people’s attention.

The Maxwells said they have not eaten a Banquet pot pie since the recall.

Blame the consumer, U.S.-style; ConAgra says silly things about its pot pies

ConAgra is continuing with its blame-the-consumer strategy when crappy pot pies make people sick with salmonella – like the 30 confirmed ill with Salmonella Chester linked to Marie Callender‘s Cheesy Chicken & Rice frozen meal.

Teresa Paulsen, a spokeswoman for ConAgra, said the company is investigating the contamination, adding,

"At this point, we are looking at an ingredient as the cause since all tests from our production environment have been negative.”

Some of the ingredients, in particular the protein such as the chicken, are precooked before packaging. She said the package has explicit instructions on how to cook the entree in a microwave or oven.

"If it’s cooked according to package instructions, any pathogen would be killed," she said.

Explicit is not the same as practical. No matter how much the Marie Callender name is supposed to fancy things up, it’s still a pot pie tweens toss in the microwave.

How effective are explicit instructions to teenagers? And why are people the critical control point in the frozen chicken thingie food safety system?

Seattle lawyer Bill Marler, who is representing an Oregon man who was hospitalized four days in May after eating one of the implicated pies, said, "You can’t expect the customer to be the kill step.”

A table of frozen, not-ready-to-eat chicken thingy outbreaks is available at:

Why do media care more about SpaghettiOs that haven’t made anyone sick than frozen chicken thingies that have sickened 30 with Salmonella?

SpaghettiOs have far greater cultural resonance than some fancy pants Marie Callender’s frozen dinner thingies. Who didin’t love SpaghettiOs as a kid, like Stay Puft Marshmallows (right, exactly as shown).

It’s the best explanation I have for why the SpaghettiOs story, involving a product which was recalled but has made no one sick, is getting far more media attention than the frozen food – which has made at least 30 people sick and highlights an on-going problem with the frozen, not-ready-to-eat products proliferating at grocery stores.

For Father’s Day, Amy went out for a couple of hours while Sorenne was sleeping and picked up a couple of those Marie Callender frozen pot pies; not the recalled ones but some others. It was a gift.

None of the material provided by ConAgra or state and federal health types has accurately described the product: do these pot pies contain raw ingredients and therefore need to be cooked to a temperature-verified 165 F, and if they do contain raw ingredients, why?

The label on Marie Callender’s Chicken Pot Pie says it’s made from scratch – does that mean all the salmonella and campylobacter is included – and to keep frozen and must be cooked thoroughly.

The box containing the fancy pants pot pie says to microwave in nothing less than an 1100W microwave (if you can figure out where to determine a microwave’s wattage) for a long time. And use a meat thermometer.

I look forward to the publication in a peer-reviewed journal regarding consumers’ response and understanding of the new groovy labels that say use a meat thermometer to verify a pot pie is cooked. I did it, but I’m a nerd (left).

ConAgra, are raw ingredients being used or was this another failure in your awesome HACCP program?

After ConAgra’s Banquet pot pie mess of 2007 which sickened 400, why are these companies still using raw salmonella-stained ingredients in their pot pies, regardless of the fancy pants label.

Politicians don’t help, somehow equating the two incidents and using them for political leverage. Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro said Friday, with a straight face.

“These recalls are very disturbing considering that the timeframe in which the SpaghettiOs were produced spans nearly two years. The volume of potentially dangerous products is significant, and it is frightening that millions of children may have unknowingly consumed these recalled products given the popularity of SpaghettiOs among kids. While these recalls and investigations are still ongoing, I look forward to learning from USDA about the circumstances that allowed two years of potentially dangerous foods to enter the market place.”

It was a manufacturing problem that was eventually caught, probably by the company and not the U.S. Department of Agriculture. No one is sick; it’s precautionary. But way to invoke kids and fear.

“This recall, combined with the recall of the Marie Callender’s frozen meals that have sickened over two dozen people in 14 states, serves as a reminder that after we must begin the process of reviewing how the food safety system at USDA should be reformed.”

Political opportunism. What must be reformed is the way companies – and it’s frequently ConAgra – process and produce these frozen chicken dinner thingies and they should stop blaming consumers. Lawsuits and embarrassment work far faster than political change.

We had roast chicken for dinner — the temp was at 165F by the time it was served.

ConAgra frozen chicken thingies in salmonella outbreak – again; 29 sick in 14 states

The Marie Callender’s brand of frozen food seems to be regarded as a little more upscale.

But they can still get poop in their products.

ConAgra is recalling the always classy, Cheesy Chicken and Rice frozen meals, as announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

That’s because 29 people in 14 U.S. states have been diagnosed with Salmonella Chester over the past couple of months.

Maybe all the sick people independently left the products out for a couple of days, let the cats poop on the counter, and didn’t shower for a week.

Because that is what USDA is saying with its paternalistic reminders for consumers to be the most skilled line of food safety defense.

Maybe consumers should don scuba gear and plug the Gulf oil spoil themselves, or if only consumers took more precautions, bad things wouldn’t happen.

While the recalled products should be safely discarded and not consumed, FSIS would also remind consumers how to safely prepare other, non-recalled frozen entrees. FSIS strongly urges consumers to always follow all cooking and preparation instructions on the label. Special attention to proper heating is important to ensure the entrees are fully cooked and all ingredients reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Consumers should use a food thermometer to make sure the entrees reach at least 165°F.

These things are frozen products; people pop them in the microwave or cook them in any variety of ways, as we laid out in our peer-reviewed research paper last year, I’ve spoken with ConAgra, I gave a talk from New Zealand (while nude, in bed) for ConAgra’s science board, but they still want to blame consumers for frozen product.

So this multi-billion dollar company gets a bunch of sick people related to their product produced with the highest safety standards, and they tell consumers, do better.

Hopeless. And sorta gross.

ConAgra spends a fortune on advertizing – how about food safety?

ConAgra CEO thingy Gary Rodkin is on a quest

A quest to find what he calls "the big, singular insight that will drive behavior change." If he can do that, he can boost the bottom line (which was $978 million on revenue of $12.7 billion in the fiscal year ended May 31). Rodkin is using theories about buying habits–backed by $399 million a year in advertising, marketing and in-store promotions–to convince grocery stores to provide ample shelves for its 45 consumer brands, which include Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, Hebrew National, Wesson and Swiss Miss.

I have a suggestion. Don’t make people barf, with your Banquet pot pies and your peanut butter. Seriously, $399 million in advertising, and you can’t promise people they won’t barf?

And the best guest speaker you can get is me naked in New Zealand (cost to ConAgra bottom line – nothing).

Food safety for people who don’t cook: stop blaming consumers

The N.Y. Times asked me to comment on the food safety feature running this morning as part of their electronic Room for Debate section.

Douglas Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University and the editor of barfblog.com, writes:

ConAgra Foods said on Nov. 14, 2007 when it reintroduced pot pies that, “… redesigned easy-to-follow cooking instructions are now in place to help eliminate any potential confusion regarding cooking times.”

I tried to them out at the time and found the instructions inadequate.

Were the new labels tested with consumers? Is there evidence from ConAgra that pot pie fans were actually following the instructions on the labels? If the company was serious about making sure the instructions worked, it should have tested the new labels with at least 100 teenagers in observational studies to prove that a target market could actually follow the instructions before introducing the product to the mass market.

The instructions direct consumers to use a food thermometer to test the temperature. But it appears that bimetallic thermometers (traditional kitchen thermometers) are used on both the ConAgra label and in the Times video; these thermometers yield inaccurate readings. For a more accurate reading, consumers would have to use digital, tip-sensitive thermometers.

Food safety isn’t simple – it’s hard. For decades, consumers have been blamed for foodborne illnesss – with unsubstantiated statements like, “the majority of foodborne illness happens in the home.” Yet increasingly the outbreaks in foods like peanut butter, pot pies, pet food, pizza, spinach and tomatoes have little to do with how consumers handle the food.

Everyone from farm-to-fork has a food safety responsibility, but putting the onus on consumers for processed foods or fresh produce is disingenuous — especially for those who profit from the sale of these products.

Preparing pot pies and blaming consumers

The N.Y. Times repeated my year-and-a-half-old home-alone reporting and video shoot with ConAgra pot pies and other frozen thingies in a front-page feature this morning and reached the same conclusion: the cooking directions suck.

(BTW, the Times video accompanying Friday’s story also sucks, and they appear to use the wrong kind of thermometer — always be tip-sensitive)

The frozen pot pies that sickened an estimated 15,000 people with salmonella in 2007 left federal inspectors mystified. At first they suspected the turkey. Then they considered the peas, carrots and potatoes.

Threatened with a federal shutdown, the pie maker, ConAgra Foods, began spot-checking the vegetables for pathogens, but could not find the culprit. …

So ConAgra — which sold more than 100 million pot pies last year under its popular Banquet label — decided to make the consumer responsible for the kill step. The “food safety” instructions and four-step diagram on the 69-cent pies offer this guidance: “Internal temperature needs to reach 165° F as measured by a food thermometer in several spots.”

… attempts by The New York Times to follow the directions on several brands of frozen meals, including ConAgra’s Banquet pot pies, failed to achieve the required 165-degree temperature. Some spots in the pies heated to only 140 degrees even as parts of the crust were burnt.

And in a staggering example of corporate arrogance coupled with blame-the-consumer, Jim Seiple, a food safety official with the Blackstone unit that makes Swanson and Hungry-Man pot pies, said pot pie instructions have built-in margins of error, and the risk to consumers depended on

“how badly they followed our directions.”

That’s assuming people can read, that they can read English, that the instructions are microbiologically validated and that the instructions are clear – meaning there has been direct or video observation of consumers attempting to cook following the instructions.

Being prudent about peanut butter thingies

“With eight dead and almost 600 sick, it’s a time to be prudent.”

That’s what I told CNN Radio late last night in response to a question about the adverts placed by Conagra Foods Incorporated and J.M. Smucker Company in an attempt to bolster peanut butter sales, which have plunged at least 25 percent since the salmonella outbreak. Oh, and with baby Sorenne around (right, exactly as shown), anything after 9:30 p.m. is late.

“None of these companies are really coming out and saying this is what we do to ensure safety. They say, yeah, we test for salmonella. But are those tests public? They’re not. …

“If you’re a parent packing a lunch and you have all the hectic things going on in the morning, is it really realistic to say, hey, before you put that peanut snack cracker individually wrapped item into your kid’s lunch you’re going to go onto the Internet and check a Web site? I think that’s a bit much. I think it’s prudent to avoid this stuff until we see where this is going.”

Some retailers slow to pull peanut products; test results need to be public

Shelly Awl, a clerk at a gas station on Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution yesterday,

“It’s so confusing. I wish they would communicate better what is safe and what is not.”

At a gas station in North Fulton, Karan Singh eyed with suspicion a pile of energy bars, cookies and snacks that had been laid at the check-out counter for purchase, telling a customer,

“I don’t think I should sell these to you. These might not be good.”

While many stores — particularly major supermarkets — appear to be keeping up with the recalls, smaller stores seem to be less consistent, according to some spot checks by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The salmonella outbreak linked to a South Georgia peanut-processing plant has spawned one of the largest product recalls in American history. The list of products that are off-limits has risen to 1,550, with new names coming out daily.

However, at Publix stores, spokeswoman Brenda Reid said recall alerts from suppliers and the FDA are immediately e-mailed to stores, which then have three hours to respond that they have removed the recalled item from the shelf. If it’s not accomplished, company managers continue to contact the store and will even send a representative there. District managers also check during their visits, she said.

The recalled item is also logged into the store’s computer, so if a customer finds one, the cashier will be alerted and will not be able to ring it up, Reid said.

Kroger stores are alerting customers who have a Kroger Plus Card of any recalled purchases through automated phone calls.

And in a feature tomorrow, the Journal-Constitution reports federal food regulators describe the 2007 Peter Pan peanut butter salmonella outbreak traced to a Georgia plant in 2007 as “a wake-up call.” But that realization did not lead officials to scrutinize at least one other peanut processor: the Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely.

They didn’t even know the plant made peanut butter.

The FDA first learned of possible salmonella contamination at ConAgra four years ago — two years before officials traced hundreds of illnesses to Peter Pan.

In early 2005, an anonymous tipster told the FDA that ConAgra’s internal testing had detected salmonella in a batch of peanut butter the previous October, agency records show. Company executives confirmed the test results to an FDA inspector but refused to turn over lab reports unless the agency requested them in writing. The inspector left the plant, records show, and never again requested the reports.

Congressional investigators later learned that FDA policy discouraged written document requests. Federal courts, the FDA said, had ruled that if manufacturers turned over material in response to a formal request from the government, those documents could not be used as evidence in a criminal prosecution against them.

But in the vast majority of cases, investigator David Nelson told a House subcommittee in 2007, the FDA pursues neither documents nor criminal charges. Nelson termed the agency’s actions “nonsensical.”

The FDA cited no violations following the 2005 inspection in Sylvester, said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for ConAgra, which is based in Omaha, Neb. Long before the inspector arrived, Childs said, the plant had destroyed the contaminated peanut butter.

This is why when companies claim they test for Salmonella, like in this ad for Jif (upper left, thanks Barb) that ran today, it’s sorta meaningless without some sort of public disclosure or oversight.