Pot Pie Problem
Nati Harnik  /  AP
A package of Banquet brand chicken pot pie is photographed in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2007. Several state health departments have told ConAgra Foods that its Banquet pot pies may be linked to cases of salmonella, but the company says its products are safe if they're cooked properly.(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
updated 10/11/2007 12:48:51 PM ET 2007-10-11T16:48:51

ConAgra Foods Inc. on Wednesday asked stores to stop selling pot pies linked to a salmonella outbreak, although the company and the U.S. Department of Agriculture defended their decision not to immediately recall the product.

ConAgra asked stores nationwide to pull the Banquet and generic brand chicken and turkey pot pies after two East Coast grocery chains made their own choice to remove the product from their shelves.

The pot pies made by ConAgra have been linked to at least 152 cases of salmonella in 31 states. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at least 20 people have been hospitalized as part of the ongoing outbreak, but so far no deaths have been linked to the pot pies.

The company and federal officials warned customers not to eat the pot pies and to throw them away, and ConAgra is offering refunds.

Defending decision
ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said the Omaha-based company decided with USDA officials that the consumer alert they issued Tuesday would be more appropriate than a recall.

"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.

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.

The Giant Food and Stop & Shop supermarket chains said earlier Wednesday that they were pulling the questionable pot pies from their stores' shelves as a precaution. Giant Food has 186 stores in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C., while Stop & Shop has 389 stores in seven northeastern states.

Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the USDA'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.

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"As we continue our investigation, we felt it would be the best thing to do is get the word out," Eamich said.

Actions criticized
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 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, Childs said Wednesday. 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 inconsistencies in the nation's food safety system.

Earlier this year, when the CDC linked ConAgra peanut butter to a salmonella outbreak that eventually sickened at least 625 people in 47 states, the company recalled all of its peanut butter. But peanut is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, while pot pies are regulated by the USDA.

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.

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

Citigroup analyst David Driscoll said in a research note that the Banquet chicken and turkey pot pie business generated about $100 million in sales a year for ConAgra. He said 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.

Consumers who want a refund for their pot pie should send the side panel of the package that contains the "P-9" location code to the following address: ConAgra Foods, Dept. BQPP, P.O. Box 3768, Omaha, NE 68103-0768. Consumers with questions can call the company toll free at 866-484-8671.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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