Total Recall

I just ate salmonella-taintedpeanut butter. What do I do now?

A Crunchy Peanut Butter Clif Bar

The Peanut Corp. of America expanded its national recall Wednesday after eight people died and more than 500 got sick from salmonella poisoning. Recalled items include all Clif Bars with peanut butter, Jenny Craig nutritional bars, and Keebler Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers. What should you do if you’ve already eaten a recalled product?

Wait and see. Just because a product was recalled doesn’t mean it was contaminated. (That’s why companies like to emphasize the word voluntary when they pull food off the shelves.) And exposure doesn’t mean you’ll get sick. But most people exposed to salmonella—bacteria that originate in the feces of animals and humans—do develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps within 12 to 72 hours. If this happens, you should call a doctor, who might prescribe antibiotics or just tell you to drink lots of fluids. Often the sickness will pass in four to seven days, although in more severe cases—when bacteria get into the bloodstream—salmonella poisoning can lead to arterial infections, heart inflammation, and Reiter’s syndrome, a form of arthritis. These extreme reactions are most common among the young, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems.

If you find a defective item in your pantry at home, most companies will either replace it or give you your money back. Clif Bar, for example, has set up a hot line for customer complaints. If you tell them the sell-by date on the item, they’ll send you a replacement. Wal-Mart, which sells Clif Bars and other recalled products, is letting customers return items without a receipt for a full cash refund. Trader Joe’s doesn’t even require that the sell-by date fall within the recall period.

You might also have a chance of winning cash in a lawsuit, but only if you get sick. People who sue companies over food-borne illnesses have to demonstrate fault, causation, and damages. A company is at fault if it has a defective product and failed to follow reasonable manufacturing standards, like keeping its product away from animal feces. To establish causation, you must prove that 1) the sickness you have is salmonella and 2) you got it from the food in question. (A stool sample should do the trick, plus a special genetic analysis to make sure the salmonella subtype—in the peanut outbreak, it’s Salmonella typhimurium—is the same strain as the larger outbreak.) As for damages, you have to show that your sickness resulted in physical, financial, or emotional harm. Several lawsuits have already been filed against the peanut manufacturer, including one by the family of a Minnesota woman who died after eating the peanut butter served at her nursing home. The vast majority of cases involving food-borne illness get settled out of court since juries tend to be sympathetic to the victim when it comes to fecal matter in food.

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Explainer thanks Sue Hearn of Clif Bar and Co., Stephanie Kwisnek of the Food and Drug Administration, and Fred Pritzker of Pritzker Olsen.