In August of 2006, a case of Salmonella serotype Tennessee contamination was reported. After this incident, public health officials in PulseNet (a network of public health and food regulatory agencies that perform standardized molecular “fingerprinting” of food-borne disease-causing bacteria) noted a substantial increase in the number of reported incidents of Salmonella Tennessee contamination (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2006; CDC, 2007). From 2005 until the first half of 2006, the number of Salmonella serotype Tennessee isolates reported to PulseNet is in the range of one to five per month. In October 2006 however, the number of reported cases went up to 30, signaling an outbreak. This prompted public health officials to launch an investigation in order to determine the possible cause of the contamination. In February 2007, CDC began to zero in on the culprit: Peter Pan Peanut Butter and Great Value Peanut Butter, both of which are produced by ConAgra, based in Nebraska and is one of the largest food-product manufacturers in Northern America. When evidence pointing to the said peanut butter brands as the source of contamination began to build up, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning against consumption of the products (FDA, 2007). In February 22, 2007, 8 days after FDA raised the red flag, a University of Iowa laboratory announced the first confirmed presence of the Salmonella strain in an opened jar of a Peter Pan peanut butter (Caplan, 2007). Subsequently, 21 opened and unopened jars of peanut butter with production dates from July to December 2006 tested positive for the strain. FDA was also able to isolate Salmonella Tennessee from 13 unopened jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter with production dates from August 2006 to January 2007 (CDC, 2007). Following this string of events, FDA confirmed that Peter Pan and certain Great Value brand peanut butter are indeed the source of the outbreak.
After FDA warned consumers against consuming the peanut butter brands produced by ConAgra, the company ordered a quick recall of all peanut butter jars with product codes beginning with 2111 – an indication that the product has been manufactured in their Georgia facility, the reported source of contamination. Although ConAgra was prompt in recalling its products, halting plant operations in its Georgia plant and working with local and federal officials to determine what went wrong, it was in a bit of a defensive over FDA’s issued warning. ConAgra’s officials were unsure why the CDC was pointing to its products as the source of contamination when their own tests came out negative (Funk, 2007). However, ConAgra’s tone turned apologetic when CDC finally confirmed the source of the Salmonella strain. The company’s CEO, Gary Rodkin, asked for apology for the severe diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps suffered by the victims – a reported total of 628 persons (Caplan, 2007).
The Salmonella outbreak was a large blow to ConAgra’s third quarter earnings. The recall alone cost the company $50 to $60 million dollars (“The Trouble with Peanut Butter”, 2007). Adding to this figure are the numerous lawsuits that the company is facing. Two wrongful death lawsuits are already in the making although FDA has not confirmed any deaths connected to the outbreak (Caplan, 2007). A Texas couple also filed a lawsuit seeking damages for medical bills, pain and suffering when their 2 children, aged 2 and 5, reportedly got sick after eating peanut butter. The lawsuit is capped at $75,000 for each child (“The Trouble with Peanut Butter”, 2007). Teams of attorneys from different law firms are also collaborating to file a case against ConAgra in behalf of the peanut butter contamination victims (“Team of Attorneys”, n.d.). If won, the company may have to pay millions of dollars for damages, which could really hurt their finances.
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Possible Causes of the Contamination
As of this writing, experts have not found the definite stage in the manufacturing process where the Salmonella strain was introduced. Health officials presented very likely possibilities but they remain just that – possibilities. David Acheson, Chief Medical Officer for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety declared that a small amount of Salmonella growing inside one of the equipment may have seeped into the product (Caplan, 2007). But how exactly did the Salmonella get there? Industry and health officials argued that because peanuts are heated at ultra-high temperatures – high enough to kill Salmonella – it can be ruled out as a possible source of contamination. The most likely culprits are dirty jars and equipment (“CDC Searching for Source”, 2007). The Salmonella outbreak in February, because it is linked to peanut butter, rather than to the usual causes – undercooked eggs and chicken – is the first of its kind in the United States. Another case however, happening in Australia was blamed to unsanitary plant conditions. CDC (2007) is not quick to agree. In its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), it was argued that peanuts can become contaminated with salmonellae “during growth, harvest and storage and the organisms are able to survive in a high-fat, low-water—activity environment”. The making of peanut butter offers such an environment and while peanut butter processing entails heating the peanuts at very high temperature, salmonellae may not always be eliminated.
While we may not be entirely sure at what stage of the process the peanut butter became contaminated, the bottom line is: Salmonella was introduced because at a certain stage, unhygienic conditions have prevailed. Something went wrong and that something has to be changed.
The Salmonella outbreak also shattered the public’s usual belief that peanuts, since it has not been previously implicated in any foodborne illness, are totally safe. The truth is any
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processed food, even that which involves a heat treatment can be contaminated. This calls for more stringent safety measures to avoid contamination (CDC, 2007).
How ConAgra Handled the Crisis and What It Needs to Do
When FDA issued the warning not to continue consuming Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter because of possible contamination with Salmonella, ConAgra quickly recalled its products, halted the operations of its Georgia facility and destroyed existing peanut butter jars (Caplan, 2007). This is a wise move on their part because it only shows they have more concern for their consumers’ safety than their own finances. It did not attempt to downplay the incident, rather it came all the way forward, announced a recall and showed its willingness to work with FDA officials. The worst thing that a company in such a crisis could do is to attempt to cover up the information and act as if it is more concerned for its reputation than standing up for the outbreak victims (“Companies in Crisis”, 2007). Fortunately for ConAgra, it accepted its fault and moved towards addressing the consequences brought about by its oversight.
Admitting to failure is just the first step however. Apart from facing the lawsuits, certain discernible changes have to be seen in the company in order for ConAgra to totally clean up the harm brought about by the contamination. Although we’re not entirely sure at what stage the contamination occurred, it did occur because of unsanitary conditions. This is the first thing to be looked into. Are there enough preventive controls in order to avoid contamination? If so, are they being enacted? Is every stage of the process completely ensured to be free from contamination? ConAgra’s answer to such questions determines its willingness to learn from what happened.
Apart from the physical changes (changes in preventive controls and safety measures for example), there may be a need to enact changes in the way the company does business.
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Stearns (2007), an experienced foodborne illness lawyer offered some helpful points. He said that a lot of companies he has gone to do not have an employee whose sole responsibility is to get in touch with the state’s health department. This is important because it is much better to be in good terms with the FDA and CDC people during good times. Communication is essential, within the organization and between the organization and regulatory agencies. Although physical changes are important, the organization must look at its culture and determine if safety and cleanliness is a strong priority. In ConAgra’s 2007 Annual Report, CEO Gary Rodkin talks about rewiring as one of the “must do’s” during the year (ConAgra Foods, 2007). Rewiring involves getting the right organization and processes and finding better ways to operate. This is a good start for ConAgra and we can only hope that it will be true to its word and become a better company despite and because of the outbreak.
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Caplan, J. (2007, February 23). Cleaning up Peter Pan’s Mess. Time. Retrieved August 31, 2007 from http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1593051,00.html
CDC Searching for Source of Salmonella Outbreak (2007, February 15). CBS. Retrieved August 31, 2007 from http://cbs2chicago.com/national/topstories_story_ 046190948.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] (2007, June 1). Multistate Outbreak of Salmonella Serotype Tennessee Infections Associated with Peanut Butter – United States, 2006 – 2007. MMWR, 56 (21), 521-524. Retrieved August 31, 2007 from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwR/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5621a1.htm
Companies in Crisis – What Not to Do When It All Goes Wrong (2007, August). Corporate Social Responsibility News and Resources. Retrieved August 31, 2007 from http://www.mallenbaker.net/csr/CSRfiles/crisis04.html
ConAgra Foods (2007). ConAgra Foods Inc. 2007 Annual Report. Retrieved September 1, 2007 from http://media.corporate-ir.net/media_files/irol/97/97518/Interactive07/ CONAGRA_2007_AR.pdf
Funk, J. (2007, February 15). Peanut Butter Recalled Over Salmonella. The Washington Post. Retrieved September 1, 2007 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/15/AR2007021500597.html
Stearns, D. (2007). Outbreak Inc. Co-Founder Denis Stearns: Litigating Foodborne Illness. Outbreak Inc. Retrieved August 30, 2007 from http://www.outbreakinc.com/news/ outbreak17.htm
Team of Attorneys Files Lawsuit in Salmonella Peanut Butter Outbreak. (n.d.). Childers Buck & Schlueter L.L.P. Retrieved August 31, 2007 from http://cbsfirm.com/html/ news.html
The Trouble with Peanut Butter: Salmonella (2007, February 17). FoodHACCP.com Newsletter. Retrieved August 31, 2007 from http://www.foodhaccp.com/memberonly/newsletter246.html
U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] (2007, February 14). FDA Warns Consumers Not to Eat Certain Jars of Peter Pan Peanut Butter and Great Value Peanut Butter. FDA News. Retrieved August 30, 2007 from http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2007/ NEW01563.html