ConAgra traces salmonella to leaky roof, sprinkler

Officials at ConAgra Foods Inc., Omaha, Neb., believe the cause of the salmonella that tainted Peanut Pan peanut butter was a leaky roof and malfunctioning sprinkler at its plant in Sylvester, Ga.

Associated Press quoted a company spokesperson explaining the plant's roof leaked during a rainstorm and the sprinkler system went off twice because of a faulty sprinkler, which was repaired. But the moisture from those three events mixed with and activated dormant salmonella bacteria in the plant that likely came from raw peanuts and peanut dust.

In the wake of those announcements, ConAgra announced several measures to reopen the plant in August and to return Peter Pan peanut butter even sooner to store shelves.

First, the company hired Paul Hall — whom it called “a leading expert with more than 30 years of experience in microbiology, food safety and food quality” — for the new position of vice president of global food safety. His hiring will “bring additional focus and leadership to developing and implementing programs that continuously improve product safety and design.”

Hall was at Matrix MicroScience Inc., a company making pathogen rapid detection systems. Previously, he held product safety and quality-related positions at Kraft Foods. "I am looking forward to helping ConAgra Foods become the recognized industry leader in food safety," Hall said.

ConAgra also is creating a Food Safety Advisory Committee, to be composed of leading, third-party experts in food safety. The committee will assist the company in its plans to fund basic research involving the detection, control and elimination of foodborne pathogens. The committee will be chaired by Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia and “one of the foremost authorities on foodborne pathogens in the world,” according to news releases. Doyle and ConAgra are recruiting other members for the committee.

In order to reopen the Georgia facility, ConAgra will “implement significant changes in the plant, including installing new, state-of-the-art machinery, technology and designs throughout the plant. While these plantwide upgrades are being put in place, the company will partner with a third-party, co-manufacturing facility that meets all standards for producing safe and quality products. ConAgra Foods will begin shipping Peter Pan Peanut Butter to retailers this summer.”

ConAgra in February recalled all Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter made at the Sylvester plant, its only peanut butter plant, since October 2004. At least 425 people in 44 states were sickened, and numerous lawsuits have been filed against the company.

"We are truly sorry for any harm that our peanut butter products caused and intend to resolve claims related to peanut butter fairly and expeditiously," said Gary Rodkin, ConAgra CEO.

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