Conagra Grocery Products, a subsidiary of Conagra Brands, formerly ConAgra Foods, was assessed a $8 million criminal fine and has to forfeit an additional $3.2 million in assets as a result of a guilty plea to a criminal misdemeanor charge alleging the shipment of contaminated peanut butter linked to a 2006-7 nationwide outbreak of salmonella poisoning.
The sentence is the largest fine ever paid in a food safety case. In pleading guilty on Dec. 13 to the case filed last year in federal district court in the Middle District of Georgia, the Chicago-based company, which operates a manufacturing facility in Sylvester, Ga., admitted that it introduced Peter Pan and private label peanut butter contaminated with salmonella into interstate commerce during the salmonellosis outbreak.
“This case demonstrates companies – both large and small – must be vigilant about food safety,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “We rely every day on food processors and handlers to meet the high standards required to keep our food free of harmful contamination.”
In February 2007, FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed an ongoing outbreak of salmonellosis cases that could be traced back to Peter Pan and private label peanut butter that was produced in Conagra's Sylvester facility. More than 700 salmonellosis cases were linked to the peanut butter, dating back to August 2006 – no deaths were identified as being related to the outbreak. Conagra voluntarily ceased production at the plant on Feb. 14, 2007, and recalled all peanut butter produced at the facility since January 2004.
The criminal case argued that around Dec. 7, 2006, the company shipped contaminated peanut butter from Georgia to Texas, and the company admitted in the plea agreement that samples obtained after the recall showed that peanut butter made at the facility on nine different dates between Aug. 4, 2006, and Jan. 29, 2007, were contaminated.
As part of the plea, Conagra admitted that it had previously been aware of the risk of salmonella contamination in peanut butter. Several potential risk factors had been identified, but the situations were not fully corrected until after the outbreak. The company also admitted that employees failed to detect the salmonella in tests, and it was unaware that some employees didn't know how to properly interpret the results of the tests.
Following the outbreak, Conagra made significant upgrades to the Sylvester plant to address the factors that could have contributed to the contamination, and instituted new and enhanced safety protocols and procedures regarding manufacturing, testing and sanitation.