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OMAHA, Neb. -- ConAgra Foods, Inc. yesterday said it would unleash a series of improvements to its Sylvester, Ga. plant and its food safety structure, in a bid to reopen the factory that had produced tainted peanut butter products and restore the confidence of customers and consumers.
ConAgra said it will appoint a recognized food safety expert to a leadership position that will consolidate companywide oversight of food safety initiatives and systems in a single position. It will also form a food safety advisory committee composed of leading independent experts.
The company said it plans to reopen its Sylvester, Ga., facility in August after it thoroughly addresses all possible causes of the Salmonella outbreak that prompted a recall of products under the Peter Pan and Great Value brands. It said it will implement significant changes in the plant, including installing new, state-of-the-art machinery, technology, and designs.
ConAgra Foods also said it will begin shipping Peter Pan Peanut Butter to retailers this summer, while the plant-wide upgrades are being put in place. The company said it will work with a third-party co-manufacturing facility that meets all standards for producing safe and quality products..
After an epidemiological study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a possible link between ConAgra Foods' peanut butter and Salmonella, the company initiated a recall from the market of 100 percent of its peanut butter products manufactured at the Sylvester facility.
ConAgra said an investigation indicated that moisture inadvertently entered the production process and allowed the growth of low levels of dormant Salmonella in the environment that were likely present from raw peanuts or peanut dust.
"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 Foods' c.e.o. "We will make significant investment in and changes to the manufacturing environment to ensure this situation does not occur again."
ConAgra said it has hired Paul A. Hall, with more than 30 years of experience in microbiology, food safety and food quality, to fill the new v.p./global food safety leadership position, intended to bring additional focus and leadership to developing and implementing programs that continuously improve product safety and design.
Hall joined ConAgra Foods from Matrix MicroScience, Inc., a leading producer of technology for the rapid concentration, capture, and detection of foodborne pathogens.
ConAgra Foods also has created a Food Safety Advisory Committee composed of third-party experts in food safety who will provide guidance to the company as part of its ongoing work with government agencies, research institutions, and scientists in the areas of food production and testing.
The committee will be chaired by Dr. Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, who ConAgra said is one of the foremost authorities on foodborne pathogens in the world. The company is currently working with Doyle to identify other members of the committee.
The news about the new hires and revamped safety monitoring infrastructure came as ConAgra denied all allegations made against it in a federal class action lawsuit seeking more than $5 million in damages, filed Wednesday.
The plaintiffs charged ConAgra with negligence in distributing contaminated peanut butter that allegedly caused hundreds of consumers in more than 40 states to contract the Salmonella.
"Plaintiffs' alleged injuries could have been caused by pre-existing conditions... or superseding causes," ConAgra said in its response to the suit.