One is peanut butter, one is ice cream. One was contaminated with Salmonella, the other with Listeria. Still, there are similarities between the Peter Pan peanut butter and Blue Bell ice cream food poisoning outbreaks.
Peter Pan was in the news this week because the company that makes it, ConAgra Grocery Products LLC, a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Inc., pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in connection with a 2006-2007 Salmonella outbreak that sickened 700 people. ConAgra admitted that it had shipped contaminated food across state lines and agreed to pay a criminal fine of $8 million and to $3.2 million in asset forfeiture.
“No company can let down its guard when it comes to these kinds of microbiological contaminants. Salmonellosis is a serious condition, and a food like peanut butter can deliver it straight to children and other vulnerable populations,” said said DOJ Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Mizer,
Companies shouldn’t let their guards down when it comes to microbiological contaminants, but plenty of them have since 2007 including another product delivered straight to children and vulnerable populations: Blue Bell ice cream.
Blue Bell shipped contaminated products across state lines to vulnerable populations in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and retirement communities including one where David Philip Shockley worked.
Shockley is the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed May 19 against Blue Bell. He repeatedly ate single-serve Blue Bell ice cream products while he was at work. Because he suffers from ulcerative colitis, Shockley had been taking immunosuppressive medications since 2012 rendering him particularly vulnerable to food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. According to the complaint, the Listeria meningitis infection he contracted was so severe, he nearly died.
At Via Christi hospital in Wichita, five patients who were unknowingly served contaminated Blue Bell products got Listeria infections. Three of them died.
As part of its plea agreement, ConAgra admitted it was aware of some risk of Salmonella contamination in peanut butter before the outbreak. One of the potential contributing factors was a leaky roof that allowed moisture into the plant. After the outbreak, the company speculated that the moisture enabled the growth of Salmonella present in the raw peanuts or peanut dust.
Blue Bell also had trouble with moisture. Condensate from pipes dripped right into product, according to inspection reports, released after the outbreak. The reports, dating back to 2009 and made public by Freedom of Information Act requests by newspapers, also revealed that the company found Listeria in non-food contact areas of its plant but did not test it to see if it was a pathogenic strain.