A federal judge on Tuesday, Dec. 13 sentenced a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Inc. to pay the largest fine ever in a food-safety case, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced. The sentence was handed down about a decade after an outbreak of salmonellosis in 47 states was traced to the company’s Peter Pan peanut butter, as well as a private label Great Value peanut butter shipped from a manufacturing plant in Sylvester, Georgia.
After ConAgra Grocery Products LLC pleaded guilty Tuesday to a criminal misdemeanor charge, the company was sentenced to pay an $8 million criminal fine and forfeit $3.2 million in assets, DOJ said in a new release. In pleading guilty to violating the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA), the company admitted it introduced into interstate commerce peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella.
The outbreak that began in 2006 and ended in 2007 was eventually linked to more than 700 cases of salmonellosis, DOJ said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated thousands of related cases were not reported, according to the DOJ news release.
As part of the plea agreement, ConAgra’s subsidiary admitted it was previously aware of some risk of Salmonella contamination in peanut butter, the agency said. What’s more, the company admitted employees who were responsible for analyzing finished product tests at the Sylvester plant neglected to detect Salmonella in the peanut butter, and the company was unaware some employees did not know how to properly interpret the tests’ results, DOJ added.
“This case demonstrates companies—both large and small—must be vigilant about food safety," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, in a statement. “We rely every day on food processors and handlers to meet the high standards required to keep our food free of harmful contamination."
Pursuant to an agreement filed last year in federal district court in the Middle District of Georgia, the company on Tuesday pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor violation of the FDCA. Federal judge W. Louis Sands accepted the guilty plea and imposed the sentence proposed in the plea agreement.
Daniel Hare, a ConAgra spokesman, said the company was pleased to resolve the matter.
“Nothing is more important to us than the safety and quality of the food we make," he said in an emailed statement. “We regret the incident and how it impacted our customers and consumers. The investments we’ve made in our facilities, employees and programs over the past nine years have allowed us to make quality peanut butter ever since and we are confident that we will continue to offer Peter Pan as a safe, wholesome food in the years to come."