Late last week, ConAgra recalled Marie Callendar’s brand Cheesy Chicken and Rice frozen entrees due to Salmonella contamination. The recall occurred because the CDC had notified ConAgra of a possible association between its Marie Callendar’s product and at least 8 Salmonella Chester infections in people nationwide. The CDC has since expanded the case-count in the ConAgra Salmonella outbreak to 30 people nationally.
Frozen food recalls are a different kind of dangerous because people do exactly what ConAgra intends, and purchase the products, put them in the freezer, and forget about them until they need a quick dinner fix. The problem that this poses, quite clearly, is that consumers may have recalled, contaminated products in their freezers long past the company’s recall announcement.
Thus, it is incumbent on ConAgra and the regulatory bodies that oversee the production of those products (here the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service) to use all available means and channels of communication to get the word out about the contaminated product so that consumers don’t eat them. The USDA issued a recall notice on June 17, 2010, which announcement appears to have been timely based on the CDC’s information. And ConAgra itself has published a statement on its website about the recall (although the statement equivocates a little too much, saying "there is no definitive link between the recalled product and any illness," which is of course wrong since the Minnesota Department of Agriculture isolated Salmonella Chester from an unopened package of the recalled product taken from a consumer’s home).
But who honestly knows about the recall, and the public health threat that the Marie Callendar’s Cheesy Chicken and Rice entrees present? Unless you’ve got a news aggregator set to detect any Google reference to salmonella or recall or outbreak–and most consumers don’t–you’d never know that the product had been recalled, much less poses a serious public health risk.
What other actions has ConAgra taken to warn the public? Newspaper ads? TV commercials? Anything? And what about traceability? Certain grocery retailers, like Costco, are able to promptly notify consumers who have purchased a recalled product. Does ConAgra require this of the retailers that sell its products? With the globalization and de-centralization of our food supply, absolute traceability from manufacturer through to the consumer is a daunting and challenging thing. But doesn’t consumer safety warrant it, particularly when actual and thorough traceability is the only sure way to make sure that vital health and recall information reaches consumers in a timely fashion?