ConAgra faces lawsuit over salmonella contamination

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Conagra

Food giant ConAgra has been accused of being "reckless"
and was on Friday slapped with a lawsuit following its nationwide
recall of salmonella-contaminated pot pie products.

The latest case, which comes in the same year as the massive salmonella contamination of ConAgra's Peter Pan peanut butter, will place another huge stain on the company's image, which will this time be harder to erase. The nationwide class action, filed on Friday in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri, maintains it aims to protect the rights of those consumers that have been affected by ConAgra's "carelessness".​ According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between January 1 2007 and October 12 2007, there have been 179 reports of illness in 32 states thought to be linked to the firm's Banquet brand pot pie products. Law firms Schiffrin Barroway Topaz & Kessler and Janet, Jenner & Suggs, which filed the suit against ConAgra, maintain that there has been an underreporting of illnesses, and that ConAgra put consumers at further risk by delaying a recall. On October 9, the firm voluntarily ceased operations and issued an advisory to consumers. This was replaced by a full recall on October 11. "Unfortunately, due to the unconscionable delay of ConAgra, many victims continued to have access to Banquet pot pies and got sick because there was no recall. ConAgra's decision to delay a recall of its products compounds the reckless disregard for food safety surrounding this horrible food borne illness tragedy. ConAgra must be held accountable,"​ said Tobias Millrood, a partner with Schiffrin Barroway Topaz & Kessler. "To delay for one minute, let alone three days is beyond neglect. It is an intentional and reckless disregard for the safety and health of the hundreds of thousands of consumers,"​ added Rob Jenner, a partner with Janet Jenner & Suggs. ConAgra said it believes the issue is likely linked to consumers undercooking the not-ready-to-eat frozen products in question - Banquet Turkey, Chicken and Beef Pot Pies. The US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) said these products were considered the potential source of reported illnesses caused by salmonella​ based on epidemiological evidence collected by CDC and State public health departments. This followed a multi-state case control study launched on October 3, which included detailed questions on chicken and egg consumption. Based on additional information provided by the Minnesota Department of Health, CDC added questions to the study on October 5 focusing on frozen chicken or turkey pot pie product consumption. FSIS was notified on October 5 that states had identified a product as the potential source of contamination. After discussions with CDC and the states throughout the weekend, on October 8 FSIS dispatched investigators to gather additional information at ConAgra's plant where these frozen pot pie products were produced. Most people infected with Salmonella​ develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12-72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts 4 - 7 days. Although most people recover without treatment, severe infections may occur. Infants, elderly persons, and people with impaired immune systems are more likely than others to develop severe illness. In severe infection, Salmonella​ spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream and then to other body sites, and can lead to death if the person is not treated promptly with antibiotics. ConAgra was earlier this year at the center of another salmonella outbreak across the country. The firm's Peter Pan and Great Value branded peanut butter were linked to sickness that affected at least 425 people across 44 US states. ConAgra issued a massive recall at the time, and ceased production of the goods until a full investigation had been conducted. The company estimated that the recall would cost $60m. A report published in June this year by FSIS found that overall, the presence of salmonella in samples of most raw meat and poultry products tested by federal inspectors decreased slightly in the first quarter of 2006. The only increase was seen in ground beef, which was linked to a slight increase in salmonella rates. In February 2006, FSIS announced several changes to the agency's salmonella testing program, including a faster reporting of results to detect problems more rapidly. Future FSIS testing will incorporate sampling of turkey carcasses and increase testing frequency at plants with process-control problems. The change to the testing program is part of the FSIS' bid to reduce salmonella in raw meat and poultry products.

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