Until three years ago, Kenneth Maxwell enjoyed Banquet chicken and turkey pot pies so much he ate them three or four times a week. They were easy to prepare, and Maxwell could eat one for lunch and quickly return to work as an electrician.
When cases of salmonella poisoning led the pies' manufacturer, ConAgra Foods, to issue a product recall in the fall of 2007, Maxwell did not hear about it and continued to eat them. He bought several pot pies about two weeks after the recall was launched, when they should have been pulled from store shelves, and became violently ill, he said.
Maxwell's experience reflects common problems with food recalls: They routinely fail to recover all of the product they seek and, according to experts, sometimes even leave tainted foods in stores, putting consumers at risk of becoming ill from potentially deadly food-borne pathogens.
n 2009, for instance, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture was involved in 59 recalls in which the amount of food sought and recovered was known, 56 came up short of the amount they identified as potentially tainted or produced at a time when factory controls were lax.
Two of those efforts highlight how far short recalls can fall. Last July a Denver processor announced a recall of more than 460,000 pounds of ground beef tied to a salmonella outbreak but recovered only 119,000 pounds. In October a New York processor announced a recall of 545,000 pounds of ground beef tied to an outbreak of E. coli; it recovered 795 pounds, according to the USDA.
Because recalls are described as voluntary, some experts say the owners of supermarkets, especially smaller stores, can mistakenly believe it is acceptable to leave recalled products on the shelves.
And while the federal government publishes notices about recalls, it depends on the news media, manufacturers and retailers to spread the news. Many consumers are unaware a product has been recalled.
"I wouldn't have eaten them otherwise," Maxwell, of Crescent, Iowa, said of the pot pies.
Some supermarkets and big-box stores, such as Costco, use the information they have compiled about customers to notify shoppers who have purchased recalled products, in some instances even telephoning them to warn them about potentially tainted food.
But others do not, which food safety and consumer advocates find frustrating.
"The companies take your information for marketing, but they won't contact you in a recall," said Donna Rosenbaum of the food safety group Safe Tables Our Priority, or STOP. "As far as I'm concerned, that's just wrong to market to consumers — to use all that information for profit — but not to then protect their health."
A spokesman for Jewel-Osco's corporate parent said relying on the media, posting shelf notices and making sure store employees are prepared to answer customers' questions all have worked with recalls in the past.
Safeway, the parent of Dominick's food stores, contacts shoppers directly in some recalls — typically smaller ones, said spokesman Brian Dowling. But in larger recalls, he said the company's stores rely on other methods to get the word out, such as notices on store shelves and stories in newspapers and on TV and radio. Calling all the people in a large recall would be too difficult, he said.
"One size doesn't fit all," Dowling said. "We look at what information we have and consider how to best and most quickly provide information to our customers."
The USDA, researchers and food safety advocates say the urgency and the reach of recalls must be improved if recalls are to be more effective and the number of Americans sickened by food-borne pathogens is to decline.
Some consumers simply ignore recalls. A study conducted last year by a professor at Rutgers University found that 12 percent of U.S. consumers ate food they knew had been the subject of a recall.
A USDA spokesman said that in spite of the department's best efforts, "some consumers may still eat and become ill from a product listed for recall."
One reason is that people often don't get sick right away from contaminated food, meaning a week or more can pass before an illness develops and is reported to health officials — a first step to detecting an outbreak and launching a recall. In the meantime, tainted food is still being sold and eaten.
The ConAgra recall was launched on Oct. 11, 2007, after illnesses caused by salmonella were found around the country. At least 272 people were sickened by the pot pies.
Maxwell, 59, said he bought his from the Super Saver in Council Bluffs, Iowa, not far from the home he shares with his wife, Betty, in late October, about two weeks after the recall began. He said he did not keep a receipt for the pot pies because they were a regular part of his shopping.
On Nov. 6, he said, he microwaved a pot pie, and a few days later he got sick, first with nausea and then with diarrhea. Because he had no health insurance, Maxwell did not immediately seek medical attention. But Betty Maxwell called an ambulance when he was not recovering after several days. Maxwell said his wife later also became sick, apparently from treating him.
A ConAgra spokeswoman said the company confirmed that the Super Saver where Maxwell bought the pot pies had been notified of a recall. An official at B&R Stores Inc., the Nebraska-based company that owns Super Saver, said its policy is to pull a product as soon as it is recalled, but it did not have records regarding the pot pie recall and its manager at the Council Bluffs store did not remember the recall specifically.
The company said it had no customer complaint on file from the Maxwells. The Maxwells never sued ConAgra but settled a claim against the company for an undisclosed amount in August 2008, according to food safety attorney William Marler, whose firm has sued manufacturers across the country and who represented the Maxwells.
The Maxwells said they have not eaten a Banquet pot pie since the recall.