ConAgra Grocery Products LLC, a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Incorporated, pled guilty yesterday to a criminal misdemeanor charge imposed over a massive Salmonella outbreak linked to its peanut butter in 2006. The Department of Justice announced the agreement on December 13, 2016. The company was ordered to pay an $8 million fine and a $3.2 million penalty, the largest fine ever paid in a food safety case.
A plea agreement was filed last year in federal district court in the Middle District of Georgia. Senior U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands accepted the guilty plea and imposed the sentence and fines. The company admitted in the plea agreement that it introduced contaminated Peter Pan and one product code of WalMart’s Great Value peanut butter into interstate commerce.
None of that money will go to victims of this outbreak. Civil claims against the company were settled years ago.
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said in a statement, “This case demonstrates companies – both large and small – must be vigilant about food safety. We rely every day on food processors and handlers to meet the high standards required to keep our food free of harmful contamination.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA investigated the outbreak in 2007 and said it was linked to Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter that was produced and shipped from the company’s plant in Sylvester, Georgia. All of the peanut butter made at that plant since January 2004 was recalled after the outbreak announcement. ConAgra Grocery Products stopped production at the plant on February 14, 2007.
In the end, more than 700 people were identified as part of this outbreak. In addition, thousands of cases were unreported, according to CDC estimates. No deaths were reported in this outbreak.
The Justice Department alleged that on or about December 7, 2006, the company shipped peanut butter that had been adulterated with Salmonella from Georgia to Texas. There is zero tolerance for Salmonella contamination in ready to eat food products. ConAgra Grocery Products admitted that samples taken after the recall showed that peanut butter made at the Sylvester plant on nine dates between August 4, 2006, and January 29, 2007 were contamianted with Salmonella bacteria. Environmental test found the outbreak strain of Salmonella in at least nine locations throughout the plant.
And the company admitted that it had been aware of some risk of Salmonella contamination in its products. On two dates in October 2004, testing at the company’s plant found Salmonella in samples of finished peanut butter. The plea agreement states that employees who were analyzing finished product tests did not recognize the pathogenic bacteria in the products and “did not know how to properly interpret the results of the tests.”
Company employees uncovered several potential factors that may have contributed to the contamination. An old peanut roaster was not uniformly heating the raw peanuts. A storm-damaged sugar silo was not repaired. And a leaky roof that led moisture into the plant and airflow that could have allowed potential contaminants to move around the plant was identified. Company officials speculated that moisture that entered the production process could have enabled the growth of Salmonella in the raw peanuts or peanut dust.
ConAgra spent millions of dollars taking corrective action on the Sylvester plant, but did not completely correct these conditions until after the outbreak. The company also initiated new and enhanced safety protocols and procedures.
Stephen M. Ostroff, Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at the FDA said in a statement, “Product safety has to be a high priority for every manufacturer of foods sold in the United States. FDA is working with food producers to promote compliance with food safety requirements, but if problems occur and are willfully ignored, we will use all available resources to protect American consumers from unsafe food.”