ConAgra Grocery Products LLC, a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Inc., today agreed to plead guilty and pay $11.2 million in connection with 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.  ConAgra Grocery Products LLC is based in Omaha, Nebraska, with a manufacturing facility in Sylvester, Georgia.

Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer of the Justice Department’s Civil Division and U.S. Attorney Michael J. Moore of the Middle District of Georgia announced the filing of a criminal information against ConAgra Grocery Products alleging a misdemeanor violation of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.  The company signed a plea agreement admitting that it introduced Peter Pan and private label peanut butter contaminated with salmonella into interstate commerce during the 2006 through 2007 outbreak.  The plea agreement provides that ConAgra Grocery Products will pay a criminal fine of $8 million and forfeit assets of $3.2 million.  The criminal fine is the largest ever paid in a food safety case.

“As parents, we can make sure that our kids look both ways before they cross the street and wear a helmet when they ride their bikes,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Delery.  “But we have to rely on the companies that make their food to make sure it is safe.  That’s why the Department of Justice is dedicated to using all the tools we have to ensure the processors and handlers of our food live up to their legal obligations to keep the public’s safety in mind.”

“The safety of the nation’s food supply is a top concern, and every company, large and small, must take appropriate measures to ensure that their products don’t make customers sick,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mizer.  “No company can let down its guard when it comes to these kinds of microbiological contaminants.  salmonellosis is a serious condition, and a food like peanut butter can deliver it straight to children and other vulnerable populations.”

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 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, filed in the Middle District of Georgia, specifically alleges 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.

“We, as consumers, take for granted that the food we feed our families is safe,” said U.S. Attorney Moore.  “We count on the companies who prepare and package the things we eat to be just as concerned with the product we put in our mouths as they are with the profit they put in their pockets.  The proposed criminal fine and sentence in this case should sound the alarm to food companies across the country – we are watching, and we are expecting you to hold yourselves to a standard reflective of the trust that your consumers have placed in you.  No more excuses.  A lot of people got very sick because of the conduct in this case and we are committed to doing all we can to make sure that does not happen again.”

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.

“U.S. consumers expect and deserve the highest standards of food safety and integrity,” said Acting Commissioner Dr. Stephen Ostroff of the FDA.  “Today’s plea agreement reflects the FDA’s commitment to ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply and demonstrates that those who risk the health of Americans will be held accountable.”

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.

Information about the case and any upcoming court hearings can be found on the Justice Department’s website in the “Food and Dietary Supplements” section.  The case is being 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.

The proposed plea agreement and recommended sentence is not final until accepted by the U.S. District Court.