Outbreak of the Month: Kellogg’s Honey Smacks Cereal

When it was first introduced in 1953, Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks cereal became an instant hit with adults and children alike. More recently, the sweetened puffed wheat cereal – known today as Honey Smacks – drew attention for very different reasons.

Between March 3 and May 28, 2018, 73 people across 31 states were identified as having been infected with Salmonella Mbandaka. Hospitalization was required in 24 cases, although there were no reported fatalities. Epidemiological evidence collected by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) showed Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal was the likely source. Sickened patients were interviewed with respect to food they had consumed and other exposures during the week before they fell ill. Of the 39 individuals interviewed, 30 (77%) indicated they had eaten cold cereal, with 14 of those specifically reporting consumption of Honey Smacks.

On Thursday, June 14, the Kellogg Co. announced a massive, nationwide recall of the sweetened cereal, reporting more than an estimated 1.3 million cases were potentially contaminated with Salmonella. The recall began with 15-ounce and 23-ounce boxes of the frog-festooned breakfast treat marked ‘Best if used by June 14, 2018 through June 14, 2019.”

In their statement, Kellogg asked that “people who purchased the potentially affected product discard it and contact the company for a full refund.” They also noted the potentially contaminated breakfast food had been in limited distribution in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as Guam, Tahiti and Saipan.

On June 15, the CDC updated their online warning to read, “Do not eat Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal in any size package. Check your home for it and throw it away, or return it to the place of purchase for a refund. If you store cereal in a container, thoroughly wash the container with warm, soapy water before using it again to remove harmful germs that could contaminate other food.”

In response, restaurants and retailers across the United States and other impacted countries immediately pulled the product from their shelves and menus. The Ministry of Health in Belize issued an official public statement, urging people to “not consume any Kellogg’s Honey Smacks” until further notice.

Although the response was swift and rigorous, on June 22, Michigan’s Battle Creek Enquirer newspaper reported that Houston-based Ron Simon & Associates, a national food safety law firm, had filed a lawsuit against Kellogg Co. The suit alleged that a single mother in Oklahoma City contracted Salmonella within 24 hours of consuming Honey Smacks. The illness resulted in a three-day hospitalization, as well as continued medical treatment.

In an email response to the same paper, a Kellogg spokesperson noted, “While we don’t comment on litigation, we take our commitment to quality and food safety very seriously. We are saddened to learn about any illness that may result from our Honey Smacks cereal and will ensure this situation is handled in a responsible and sensitive manner.”

To date, no other lawsuits have been filed. However, on their website, The Coveny Law Firm noted, “The recall was slow to get on the radar of national health agencies, as the victims are spread widely across the nation. The most any state has is seven, in New York, with a few states having five victims – the majority have one to three victims.  The outbreak also started slowly in early March, and then gained momentum in April and May until, on June 10th, with many more potential illness out there, the trace-back investigation pointed to Honey Smacks cereal. This is not the first time that a Kellogg Cereal was linked to a Salmonella recall, as Kellogg cereals were recalled nearly a decade ago due to a contaminated ingredient (peanut butter).  This time the culprit may again be a contaminated ingredient – introduced into the cereal.  It may also be there was a break-down at the Kellogg facility.”

While such incidents are unusual, in 2008, there was a Salmonella outbreak linked to puffed rice and puffed wheat cereals distributed under the Malt-O-Meal label. In their original statement, Kellogg Co. stated they had launched an investigation immediately after being contacted by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC regarding the reported illnesses. Specifically, they began reviewing the practices of the unnamed, third-party manufacturer who produces Honey Smacks. However, to date, no further updates have been provided by Kellogg Co., the FDA or the CDC.

With no further reported illnesses or issues, the cereal is once again back on shelves across the country. It will take time for us to understand the full impact of this recall on brand reputation, but with widespread media coverage and significant social chatter on the issue, it’s likely going to give consumers some pause when choosing a cereal for their families.