Largest food safety fine ever in US: ConAgra pleads guilty in 2006 Salmonella-in-peanut butter case that sickened thousands

By March 2007, Salmonella in Peter Pan peanut butter – owned by ConAgra — had sickened 628 people in 47 states and caused the company to shut down its Sylvester, Georgia, manufacturing facility; the contamination was likely due to a leaky roof and faulty sprinklers. copyIn 2008, I was invited by ConAgra to speak about food safety stuff, but was in Wellington, New Zealand, and the hobbits weren’t running fast enough so the Internet was slow, so just did audio.

Naked, in bed (right, exactly as shown).

Today it was announced that ConAgra Grocery Products will plead guilty and pay $11.2 million in fines for shipping contaminated peanut butter that was linked to a Salmonella poisoning outbreak in 2006, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

In their agreement, ConAgra Grocery, a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods, admitted that its Peter Pan and private label peanut butter products were contaminated with Salmonella, leading to more than 700 cases identified nationally until 2007 by federal health officials.

While no deaths related to the outbreak were reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that “thousands” of other related cases went unreported.

ConAgra will pay a criminal fine of $8 million for a misdemeanor violation of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act — the largest fine ever in a food safety case — and forfeit assets of $3.2 million.

“No company can let down its guard when it comes to these kinds of microbiological contaminants,” said DOJ principal deputy assistant attorney general Benjamin Mizer, in a statement. “Salmonellosis is a serious condition, and a food like peanut butter can deliver it straight to children and other vulnerable populations.”

Rolling_Stones_1971In February 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CDC determined that the salmonellosis outbreak could be traced to ConAgra’s products that were made and shipped from its plant in Sylvester, Ga., starting December 2006.

ConAgra ended production at the plant following the announcement and recalled all peanut butter manufactured there since January 2004. “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,” the Justice Department said.

Testing conducted after the recall also identified the same strain of salmonella in at least nine locations throughout the Sylvester plant, it said.

ConAgra also admitted that it had been aware of some risk of salmonella contamination in peanut butter given the damaged equipment at the plant. In 2004, ConAgra tested the Sylvester plant and found products that were contaminated with salmonella. It identified several possible causes, including an old peanut roaster, a storm-damaged sugar silo, and a leaky roof that allowed moisture into the plant.

“The company did not fully correct these conditions until” the outbreak, the Justice Department said.

The company’s version goes like this:

Leading food safety practices, including robust testing, new equipment and extensive training, have helped ensure that the plant has made safe and wholesome peanut butter on a daily basis. ConAgra Foods has been recognized as a leader in food safety since that time. The company and its 175 dedicated employees in Sylvester, GA., who make Peter Pan peanut butter products every day, are deeply committed to food safety.

“We did not, and never will, knowingly ship a product that is not safe for consumers. We’ve invested heavily in leading-edge food safety technology and practices over the past eight years, and we are thankful for all of the people who recognize that and are loyal Peter Pan fans,” said Dr. Al Bolles, chief technical and operations officer for ConAgra Foods. “ConAgra Foods took full responsibility in 2007, taking immediate steps to determine the potential causes of and solutions for the problem and acting quickly and definitively to inform and protect consumers. This incident brought to light previously unknown aspects of making safe peanut butter, and we have been passionate about sharing what we learned to help others join us in creating an even safer food supply. We will remain vigilant to maintain the trust we’ve worked so hard to earn from our consumers.”

Sticky fingers?