ConAgra Grocery Products LLC, a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Inc., today pleaded guilty to a criminal misdemeanor charge alleging the shipment of contaminated peanut butter linked to a 2006 through 2007 nationwide outbreak of salmonellosis, or salmonella poisoning, the Department of Justice announced today. Following its guilty plea, the company was sentenced to pay an $8 million criminal fine and forfeit an additional $3.2 million in assets. The sentence represents the largest fine ever paid in a food safety case. ConAgra Grocery Products LLC is based in Omaha, Nebraska, with a manufacturing facility in Sylvester, Georgia.
The company pleaded guilty pursuant to a plea agreement filed last year in federal district court in the Middle District of Georgia. Senior U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands accepted the company’s guilty plea and imposed the sentence proposed in the plea agreement. In pleading guilty to violating the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the company 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 C. 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, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that an ongoing outbreak of salmonellosis cases in the United States could be traced to Peter Pan and private label peanut butter produced and shipped from the company’s Sylvester, Georgia, peanut butter plant. The company voluntarily terminated production at the plant on Feb. 14, 2007, and recalled all peanut butter manufactured there since January 2004. The CDC eventually identified more than 700 cases of salmonellosis linked to the outbreak with illness onset dates beginning in August 2006. The CDC estimated that thousands of additional related cases went unreported. The CDC did not identify any deaths related to the outbreak.
The criminal information specifically alleged that on or about Dec. 7, 2006, the company shipped from Georgia to Texas peanut butter that was adulterated, in that it contained salmonella and had been prepared under conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with salmonella. The company admitted in the plea agreement that samples obtained after the recall showed that peanut butter made at the Sylvester plant on nine different dates between Aug. 4, 2006, and Jan. 29, 2007, was contaminated with salmonella. Environmental testing conducted after the recall identified the same strain of salmonella in at least nine locations throughout the Sylvester plant.
“Consumers are at the mercy of food merchants when it comes to the wholesomeness and healthiness of the food we consume and, as the result, a great responsibility is imposed by law on those merchants and manufacturers,” said U.S. Attorney G. F. “Pete” Peterman III for the Middle District of Georgia. “Likewise, agriculture is Georgia’s largest industry and peanuts and peanut products are a major factor in the health of that industry. While ConAgra did take corrective action eventually, by failing to timely recognize and rectify the problem of salmonella contamination, this company damaged the health of both public consumers and of the agricultural industry overall. I commend my staff, that of the Consumer Protection Branch of the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the investigators of the FDA, for the excellent work by all in bringing this incident to this conclusion and I hope that it will serve as a reminder to others in the industry of the high cost of failing to protect the public that relies on them to properly meet this responsibility.”
As part of the plea agreement, the company admitted that it had previously been aware of some risk of salmonella contamination in peanut butter. On two dates in October 2004, routine testing at the Sylvester plant revealed what later was confirmed to be salmonella in samples of finished peanut butter. Company employees attempting to locate the cause of the contamination identified several potential contributing factors, including an old peanut roaster that was not uniformly heating raw peanuts, a storm-damaged sugar silo, and a leaky roof that allowed moisture into the plant and airflow that could allow potential contaminants to move around the plant. As stated in the plea agreement, while efforts to address some of these issues had occurred or were underway, the company did not fully correct these conditions until after the 2006 through 2007 outbreak. In public statements after the 2007 recall, company officials hypothesized that moisture entered the production process and enabled the growth of salmonella present in the raw peanuts or peanut dust.
The company also admitted in the plea agreement that between October 2004 and February 2007, employees charged with analyzing finished product tests at the Sylvester plant failed to detect salmonella in the peanut butter, and that the company was unaware some of the employees did not know how to properly interpret the results of the tests.
“Product safety has to be a high priority for every manufacturer of foods sold in the United States” says Stephen M. Ostroff, Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at the FDA. “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.”
Following the outbreak and shutdown, the company made significant upgrades to the Sylvester plant to address conditions the company identified after the 2004 incident as potential factors that could contribute to salmonella contamination. The company also instituted new and enhanced safety protocols and procedures regarding manufacturing, testing and sanitation, which it affirmed in the plea agreement it would continue to follow.
The case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Middle District of Georgia and the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch. This matter was investigated by the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations.