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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Lawyers, Lawsuits and Statistics in the Peanut Butter Wars

The CDC reported in a statement March 7, 2007, that 425 people in 44 states had been infected with the strain of Salmonella Tennessee also found in Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter products, and that 71 people had been hospitalized and no deaths.  That same Salmonella strain was also found by FDA investigators in the Con Agra plant, but where it was located has not been announced.  Two-thirds of the reported 425 cases began after December 1, 2006.  At last count there were also at least 25 lawsuits filed with at least 13 competing Class Actions.

Putting this in context, the CDC estimates that 76 million foodborne illness, or food poisoning, cases occur in the United States every year (6.3 million per month), which means that one in four Americans contracts a foodborne illness annually after eating foods contaminated with such pathogens as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Hepatitis A, Campylobacter, Shigella, Norovirus, and Listeria. Approximately 325,000 people are hospitalized with a diagnosis of food poisoning, and 5,000 die.

The CDC also reports that 40,000 cases of Salmonella are confirmed yearly in the U.S.  As only about 3% of Salmonella cases are officially confirmed nationwide, and many milder cases are never diagnosed, the true incidence is undoubtedly much higher (approximately 1.3 million per year or 111,000 per month). It is estimated that 1,000 deaths are caused by Salmonella infections in the U.S. every year.

In 2004 only 52 cases of Salmonella Tennessee were reported. Using the same estimate that only 3% of Salmonella cases are every actually reported, it is likely that only 1,500 Salmonella Tennessee cases occur annually.

It is unclear how many tests have been run on jars of peanut butter. It is my understanding that it may be as few as a dozen jars, and that the jars tested may have only come from the homes of people who were actually stool-culture positive for Salmonella Tennessee (some of the 425).  I have no idea why the FDA and Con Agra are not aggressively testing left-over jars of peanut butter.

The FDA and Con Agra made the original recall announcement on February 14, 2007.  On March 9, 2007, the FDA announced that the recall had now been extended back to October 2004 (2 years and 4 months of production). No explanation has been given as to what prompted the temporal expansion. I assume that is was because of a link between a Salmonella Tennessee stool-culture positive person in 2004 to the consumption of Con Agra peanut butter, or a culture-postive jar of peanut butter (it would be interesting to see if it was in plant testing or from someones home).  This certainly is ample evidence of at least an ongoing, but sporadic, contamination in the plant.

I wonder how many jars of peanut butter were produced at the Con Agra Sylvester, Georgia plant during those 28 months? Sales from the Sylvester plant, I understand are $150,000,000 per year.  If you assume that Con Agra sells each jar for $2.00, that is 75,000,000 jars per year with 2111 on the lid.  During that same 28-month period of time, over 177 million Americans became ill from eating food and there were approximately 3 million Salmonella cases. If the statistics for Salmonella Tennessee held during that time frame, we would expect approximately 3,500 cases generally.

So, here is an interesting quandary:

We have received over 4,500 calls and emails from people in the U.S. and from many corners of the world. Most report illnesses consistent with a Salmonella illness. Of those people, nearly 3,500 still have jars with code 2111 (we have started testing). Many, however, did what the FDA and Con Agra advised, and threw the product away. Nearly 1,000 of the people who contacted us sought some level of medical treatment (ER visit to hospitalization), seven families report the death of a love one. Interestingly, only 125 people (part of the 425) report that they are stool-culture positive for Salmonella Tennessee and only 2 are both Salmonella Tennessee positive in stool and peanut butter testing.

Although we have seen 4,500 inquires, lawyers from around the country (without previous foodborne illness litigation experience) report hundreds, if not thousands of additional cases. So, what does this all mean? Are we seeing an enormous increase in Salmonella, specifically, Salmonella Tennessee, illnesses tied to eating Con Agra peanut butter? Or, are we seeing some part of the 177 million Americans who became ill in the last 28 months, who also just happened to eat Con Agra peanut butter?

By the way, this is how you read the lid code – 2111 is the Con Agra plant in Sylvester, Georgia; the next digit, a 6, is the production year, 2006; the next digit, 165, is the day the peanut butter was produced; the next two digits, 00, mean nothing; the next four digits, 2036, is military time for 8:36 PM; and, the last letter, A, is the line that the peanut butter was produced on.

  • Jim Shirley

    I too am upset at the way that our food stuffs are manufactured and us blindly going to the store and being so trusting. My wife has had a stomach disorder for a 3 or 4 months and we were thinking that it was a bug “going around”. Then I heard of the recall of Peter Pan Peanut Butter. In checking our cabinets, I found a half consumed jar with the numbers 2111 on it. Okay, I am a little bit of a skeptic, so we just put it up and was gonna take it to the store and get a new jar. A month later, my wife, still experiencing a severe stomach or intestinal tract disorder, went to the doctor again and this time was diagnosed with the Ecoli bacteria. Her and the doctor couldn’t figure out where she had gotten this. She called me with the news and I immediately said “The Peanut Butter”. She called and informed the doctor and he confirmed that, in fact, the Peter Pan peanut butter had caused the problem. Fortunately, she was the only person in the house that had consumed any of it, due to the fact that I had been in Irag and the doctor wanted her to eat more peanut butter because of the protein that she needed. Nevertheless, the jar is in a safe location and legal actions are to follow. Shame on the food industry for being so lax. Jim24874@Yahoo.com

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  • carolyn

    When are we going to get paid, after almost dying eating peter pan peanut butter? It has been over two years now since the lawsuit was filed. What does it mean that Con Agra and it’s lawyers are taking every case individually to try and determine the settlement action on each individual case? this could take years, but it only took minutes to get very ill from eating the Peter Pan Peanut Butter.
    Carolyn