The General Mills action affects millions of its Totino's and Jeno's brand pizzas, in one of the company's largest recalls in years.
General Mills Inc. voluntarily recalled nearly 5 million pizzas Thursday after an investigation by federal and state regulators found the pepperoni topping likely caused several E. coli-related illnesses. That number includes the Totino's and Jeno's brand pizzas now in stores, but not ones that could still be in consumers' freezers.
"There is absolutely no way to quantify how much pizza is in the freezer," said General Mills spokesman Tom Forsythe, who called the recall one of the largest the company has seen in years.
General Mills alerted its customers of the recall early Thursday afternoon, leading to frozen pizzas being pulled from store shelves across the Twin Cities area and statewide.
The Golden Valley company has sold about 120 million frozen pizzas nationwide since July 1. Of that number, an estimated 60 percent included pepperoni.
From mid-July until mid-October, an investigation led by the Tennessee Department of Health found 21 people in 10 states -- including one in Wisconsin and one in South Dakota -- fell ill with E. coli.
At least eight people were hospitalized with the foodborne illness, which can cause bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps lasting a few days on average. Four of the victims have developed kidney failure, according to a Centers for Disease Control statement.
No incidences have been reported in Minnesota.
"Eating a Totino's or Jeno's brand frozen pizza containing pepperoni was significantly associated with illness," according to the CDC statement.
However, of those 21 cases, only nine people reported having eaten Totino's or Jeno's pizzas before they became ill. A CDC spokesman said the strain of E. coli had the same genetic fingerprint, so the agency believes the 21 cases are related. He said many people can't remember exactly what they ate before getting sick. States typically will test returned and unopened products for additional evidence of the infection's origin.
"We have found no evidence of E. coli in our plant and no evidence of E. coli in our products," Forsythe said. The pizzas were produced at the company's Wellston, Ohio, plant and distributed nationwide. This is the sole plant making pizza for General Mills, and it is still producing products that don't include pepperoni.
General Mills doesn't make the pepperoni. Forsythe would not name the meat supplier.
Jean Kinsey, co-director of the University of Minnesota's Food Industry Center, said pepperoni seems like "a strange culprit" for E. coli, but figures it must have been undercooked. Ground beef is most commonly associated with the contamination, which originates from the fecal content of animals.
Forsythe said General Mills found out about the problem only on Tuesday and proceeded with the recall as a precaution. "This is a decision of considerable consequence made in the interest of public safety," he said.
The company doesn't break out pizza sales, but he said it was a small portion of its $12.4 billion in revenue last year.
Shares of General Mills Inc. (GIS) ended the day down 2 percent at $56.58 on a down day on Wall Street.
For more information about the recall, consumers can visit www.generalmills.com or call 1-800-949-9055.
Kara McGuire 612-673-7293