At first it seemed like an open-and-shut case of contamination. Three people in three separate households ate Jolly Time Microwave Popcorn and then became violently ill. So, the popcorn did it, right?
Well, that's what the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services maintained on April 26.
Only five hours after learning of the illnesses, state health officials in Concord, N.H., issued an advisory urging consumers to avoid Jolly Time Microwave Popcorn. Stores were asked to remove the item from sale. Soon thereafter, similar notices were announced by authorities in Maine and Vermont.
But now, barely three weeks after New Hampshire took action, it's thought that the health officials may have acted prematurely. What looked like a major contamination episode may have been nothing more than spring fever.
Nevertheless, the incident seems to have ignited a phantom food poisoning outbreak that inexplicably spread to five states and caused dozens of suspect illnesses.
Last Friday, New Hampshire state agencies backtracked by fully exonerating Jolly Time, but not, according to the firm, before doing considerable damage to the sales and reputation of the product in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, New York and North Dakota.
Jolly Time, manufactured by Sioux City, Iowa-based American Pop Corn, lost "tens of thousands of dollars" in sales in the interim, stated a company representative. Damage to the firm's reputation, of course, is more difficult to calculate.
"An investigation into the cause of recent illnesses occurring after eating Jolly Time Microwave Popcorn has not turned up any evidence of contaminants or tampering in the product," read a New Hampshire Health Department announcement. "At this point we're very relieved that the items we were most concerned about have been ruled out (as a cause)."
New Hampshire was forced to call off its advisory after numerous state and federal laboratory analyses of the popcorn product revealed no potential problem. Vermont, Maine and New York immediately followed suit late last week.
Dr. Geoffrey Smith, New Hampshire's state epidemiologist, said his agency did not act irresponsibly in announcing the original recall.
"Our job is to protect the public health," he said. "And any time a potential threat exists we must make sure that there is not a real threat. It takes time till we are reassured."
Smith acknowledged that such a public advisory and product recall is unusual, particularly one issued only five hours after the three initial illnesses became known.
"Sometimes more detective work is needed (than five hours)," he said.
New Hampshire took the action after being informed by attending physicians that individuals from separate households had all reported suffering severe vomiting and diarrhea.
"We were looking for something that these three individuals may have eaten in common. There was nothing other than the popcorn," Smith said. "We had the good fortune to isolate a common material that was shared by all these individuals."
Eventually, 39 people reported becoming ill in New Hampshire after eating Jolly Time Microwave Popcorn and one person required hospitalization. Yet clinical tests conducted on some of the victims did not detect any cause of the illnesses. Smith also said that it was unlikely that the victims were suffering from flu.
The U. S. Food and Drug Administration, involved from the outbreak's beginning, conducted laboratory analyses of Jolly Time popcorn for toxins, molds, chemicals, pesticides and heavy metals. The results were negative. The agency even examined the popcorn's packaging without finding a problem. The FDA also analyzed the suspect popcorn from the homes of people who claimed to be ill and, again, found nothing harmful.
"As of this moment, we have done a battery of tests and not been able to identify anything that would link reported illnesses to Jolly Time popcorn," said Chris Lecos, an FDA spokesman in Washington. "We have no explanation (for the illnesses)."
Lecos said that the FDA's sampling was thorough enough that it will not conduct any further laboratory testing and considers the matter closed.
An American Pop Corn representative said the company is at a loss to explain how their product got caught up in the mystery outbreak.
"I wish we could tell you what caused this," said American's Tom Elsen. "We stand behind the product, and there is nothing to link our popcorn to any of the illnesses."
Elsen and others have speculated that news reports of the initial illnesses, although never conclusively linked to popcorn, prompted others to claim they were also victims of food poisoning.
"There are no instances or cases reported where the media coverage hasn't appeared," Elsen said. "We've talked to people who called us here (in Sioux City) after reading the news stories and said they had the flu and thought that maybe it was the popcorn."
New Hampshire's Smith said that the matter, now concluded, is considered just another "unsolved issue." He maintains that his agency acted properly throughout and that if similar cases surfaced they would do "exactly the same thing again."