Earlier this week ConAgra Grocery Products, LLC, a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods, Inc., was sentenced to pay $11.2 million after pleading guilty to a criminal misdemeanor charge related to shipping peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella. The $8 million criminal fine and forfeiture of $3.2 million in assets is the largest fine ever paid in a food safety case, according to the Department of Justice.
“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 in a release. “We rely every day on food processors and handlers to meet the high standards required to keep our food free of harmful contamination.”
ConAgra admitted that it introduced contaminated Peter Pan and private label peanut butter into interstate commerce (produced and shipped from the company’s facility in Sylvester, Georgia) during an outbreak of Salmonellosis in 2006. The company also admitted that it had been previously aware of the risk of Salmonella contamination in peanut butter dating back to 2004. Among the culprits of the contamination (as identified by company employees) were an old peanut roaster that did not uniformly heat the raw peanuts, a sugar silo damaged by a storm, and a leaky roof that permitted moisture to enter the facility, followed by airflow that may have pushed the contamination throughout the plant.
The company tried to address some of the issues, but the DOJ stated that ConAgra did not fully correct the situation until after the 2006–2007 outbreak. “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.”