ConAgra has agreed to pay the U.S. government an $8 million criminal fine for violating the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act when it distributed peanut butter contaminated with salmonella bacteria and caused a massive national outbreak of salmonella poisoning in 2006 and 2007. ConAgra’s fine is the largest criminal fine ever paid in a food safety case.
The Omaha, Neb.,-based food company also agreed to forfeit assets worth $3.2 million as part of the settlement, bringing the total fines to $11.2 million.
The criminal fines stem from shipments of peanut butter sold under the Peter Pan brand and various private label brands produced in a ConAgra plant in Sylvester, Ga., that was rife with salmonella bacteria. Because the peanut butter was made in unsanitary conditions, several batches of it became contaminated, yet ConAgra still shipped it out.
More than 700 people were sickened with salmonellosis after eating the peanut butter, with the first confirmed case occurring in August 2006. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that thousands of other cases of salmonella food poisoning linked to the ConAgra peanut butter went unreported, as is common in salmonella outbreaks.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, ConAgra shipped the contaminated peanut butter from Georgia on or around Dec. 7, 2006. Once CDC officials linked reported cases of salmonellosis back to ConAgra peanut butter, ConAgra launched a recall of all its peanut butter products made since January 2004.
ConAgra admitted in the plea agreement that samples obtained after the recall showed that peanut butter made at its Sylvester, Ga., plant on nine different dates between Aug. 4, 2006, and Jan. 29, 2007, was contaminated with salmonella. Further tests of ConAgra facilities conducted after the recall identified the same strain of salmonella in at least nine locations throughout the Sylvester plant.
ConAgra also admitted it had been aware of the salmonella contamination risk. For instance, twice in October 2004 routine testing at the Georgia plant found salmonella in samples of finished peanut butter. Company employees attempting to locate the cause of the contamination identified several problems, 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 circulate throughout the plant.
Investigations also found ConAgra employees failed to detect salmonella in some of the contaminated samples. ConAgra said it was unaware some of the employees did not know how to properly interpret the results of the tests.
Despite its findings, the company failed to take sufficient action to correct the problems until after the 2007 outbreak, the Justice Department said.
Following the outbreak and plant shutdown, ConAgra overhauled its Georgia plant to address conditions that contributed to the salmonella contamination. The company also instituted new safety protocols and procedures for its manufacturing, testing, and sanitation processes.
Source: U.S. Department of Justice