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How did the Salmonella get in the jar?

One week after ConAgra Foods Inc. pulled its Peter Pan brand of peanut butter off the shelves following a salmonella outbreak, the Center for Disease Control has confirmed the presence of the dangerous bacteria in the jars.

Opened jars from people who were sickened after eating the peanut butter tested positive for the salmonella, according to an Associated Press news report on Friday.

Dave Daigle, a CDC spokesman in Atlanta, asked the million-dollar question: “How did the salmonella get in the jar?”

ConAgra Foods Inc. last week recalled all Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter made at its Sylvester, Ga., plant after federal health officials linked the product to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 329 people from 41 states since August.

According to the CDC, at least 51 people were hospitalized with symptoms of the disease between Aug. 1 and Feb. 2, with 60 percent of illnesses beginning after Dec. 1.

Salmonella, which commonly originates from the feces of birds and animals, sickens about 40,000 people a year in the U.S. and kills about 600. Common symptoms include diarrhea, fever, dehydration, abdominal pain and vomiting.

Gary Rodkin, chief executive of Omaha-based ConAgra, said that the company will take “all reasonable steps to remedy the situation.”

“We are truly sorry for any harm that our peanut butter products may have caused,” Rodkin said in a news release.

Government and industry officials are saying that the contamination may have been caused by dirty jars or equipment. Peanuts are usually heated to high, germ-killing temperatures during the manufacturing process. The only known salmonella outbreak in peanut butter — in Australia during the mid-1990s — was blamed on unsanitary plant conditions.

ConAgra has said none of its previous routine testing of plant equipment and peanut butter has tested positive for salmonella. Food and Drug Administration officials say they last inspected the plant in February 2005 and found no problems.

Several lawsuits have been filed nationwide on this matter. The family of a 76-year-old woman in Philadelphia filed a wrongful death lawsuit this week stating that the woman’s entire family had been sickened by the tainted product, although she was the only one who succumbed to the infection.

ConAgra is in for a huge legal battle – and rightly so. Food preparation and distribution should not be taken lightly and this is a sad example of that truth. One slip-up, one unsanitary plant can cause a major outbreak. I hope others will take a lesson or two from ConAgra’s error.

Sure it will cost ConAgra to resolve injury claims we and many other law firms are presenting, however, they will lose even more money in lost sales and loss of reputation.

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