Pot pies suspected in 30-state Salmonella outbreak

Oct 10, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Health officials are warning consumers not to eat certain frozen chicken and turkey pot pie products, as federal investigators gather more information on a nationwide Salmonella outbreak that has so far sickened 139 people in 30 states.

Affected products include Banquet frozen chicken or turkey pot pies made by ConAgra Foods—along with generic or store brands of the same two products—that have a printed code ending in "P9" on the package, according to a statement yesterday from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC said the outbreak involves Salmonella enterica serotype I,4,[5],12:i:-, with 139 matching isolates collected from patients between Jan. 1 and Oct. 9, which suggests the outbreak is ongoing. At least 20 people have been hospitalized, the CDC said, but no deaths have been reported. Salmonellosis typically causes fever and nonbloody diarrhea that resolves in a week.

On Oct 3, the CDC launched a multistate case-control study with detailed questions about chicken and egg consumption to determine the outbreak source, according to a public health alert from the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Two days later the CDC added questions about frozen chicken and turkey pot pies, based on epidemiologic findings from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), which had linked Banquet brand pot pies to six cases of salmonellosis.

After the multistate case-control study confirmed Minnesota's finding that linked pot pies to the outbreak, the FSIS on Oct 8 sent investigators to the ConAgra processing plant that produces the pot pies to gather more information, according to the FSIS statement. ConAgra voluntarily stopped production yesterday at the plant, located in Marshall, Mo., the Associated Press reported today.

So far the government agencies have not reported finding the outbreak strain of Salmonella in any pot pies.

ConAgra has not issued a product recall, but yesterday it released a consumer advisory. Though the company advises consumers to avoid eating the pies while the USDA investigates the problem, it believes illnesses are probably related to undercooking of the product by consumers.

"The company reminds consumers that these products are not ready-to-eat and must always be thoroughly cooked as instructed on the packages," ConAgra said in its statement. It added that Salmonella is a common pathogen found in not-ready-to-eat poultry products such as pot pies, and cooking instructions are designed to eliminate any associated risks.

ConAgra said it was working with the USDA to see if any changes to cooking instructions are needed to clarify the proper steps for consumers. "Already, the company is revising its packaging to more clearly illustrate different cooking times for Banquet pot pies related to varying wattages of microwaves," the company said in its statement.

Though the firm didn't issue a recall, the ConAgra statement said consumers can get a refund if they send the side panel of the package bearing the P-9 code to the company.

Two other Salmonella outbreaks in recent years were also linked to undercooked frozen chicken products, one in 2005 and one in 2006. Both involved breaded, prebrowned, individually wrapped chicken entrees. During those outbreaks, health officials pointed out that Salmonella is not considered an adulterant in such products and that raw poultry products must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F to kill the pathogen.

In past outbreaks, Minnesota officials have warned consumers not to use microwave ovens to cook raw meat and poultry, even though many product labels include microwave instructions. Microwave ovens vary in strength and can cook products unevenly, they said.

See also:

Oct 9 CDC press release

Oct 9 FSIS public health alert

Oct 9 ConAgra statement

Jul 21, 2006, CIDRAP News story "More Salmonella cases tied to frozen chicken entrees"

Apr 22, 2005, CIDRAP News story "Salmonella cases linked to frozen chicken entrees"

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