ConAgra Grocery Products LLC, Omaha, Neb., a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Inc., has agreed to plead guilty and pay $11.2 million in fines and forfeitures connected with the charge that it shipped contaminated peanut butter linked to a 2006-2007 nationwide outbreak of salmonella poisoning, the Department of Justice announced May 20.
Manufacturing products at a facility in Sylvester, Ga., ConAgra Grocery Products signed a statement 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 stipulates that the company 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. Documents outlining a plea deal with federal prosecutors were filed in the U.S. District Court in Georgia. ConAgra agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of shipping adulterated food, a misdemeanor, and pay $8 million in fines plus $3.2 million in forfeitures.
In February 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that an outbreak of salmonellosis cases in the U.S. could be traced to Peter Pan and private-label peanut butter produced and shipped from ConAgra Grocery's Sylvester peanut butter plant. The outbreak was blamed for sickening at least 625 people in 47 states. The company voluntarily halted production at the plant on February 14, 2007, and recalled all of the peanut butter manufactured there since January 2004.
ConAgra was charged as a company. No executives were charged. Chief operations officer Al Bolles reports that the company didn't know its peanut butter was contaminated with salmonella before it was shipped. ConAgra officials reportedly blamed moisture from a leaky roof and a malfunctioning sprinkler system at the Sylvester plant location for contributing to the salmonella bacteria growth on raw peanuts. The company says it made $275 million in upgrades and adopted new testing procedures before reintroducing Peter Pan peanut butter a few months after the recall. The company's plea deal must still be approved by a federal judge.