ConAgra To Pay $11M, Plead Guilty To Criminal Charge In Peter Pan Peanut Butter Salmonella Outbreak

Back in 2006 and 2007, ConAgra shipped out batches of Peter Pan peanut butter tainted with salmonella, sickening more than 700 people in nearly every state. Today, the company has agreed to enter a guilty plea to criminal charges associated with the outbreak and to pay $11.2 million.

The tainted Peter Pan had been produced in the ConAgra plant in Sylvester, GA, and shipped to stores nationwide. The Justice Department accused the Nebraska-based food giant of misdemeanor violations of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

According to the plea agreement [PDF] filed today in a federal court in Georgia, ConAgra is admitting guilt to charges of the introduction into interstate commerce of adulterated food.

Of the $11.2 million penalty, $3.2 million will be turned over in the form of forfeited assets. The remaining $8 is the largest criminal fine ever paid in a food safety case, according to the DOJ.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified more than 700 reported cases of salmonella poisoning tied to the Peter Pan plant, it estimates that several thousand additional cases went unreported.

After the Sylvester plant operations were halted in 2007, testing found the presence of salmonella in at least nine places within the facility.

In its plea, ConAgra admits that it had previously been aware of some risk of salmonella contamination in peanut butter.

For example, twice in Oct. 2004, routine testing at the Sylvester plant turned up the bacteria in finished Peter Pan products.

Employees attempted to find the source of the salmonella and identified several possibilities, 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.

Though ConAgra took efforts to address these problem areas, the fixes took years and weren’t completed until after the salmonella outbreak.

Additionally, between Oct. 2004 and Feb. 2007, ConAgra employees in charge of testing finished peanut butter failed to detect salmonella. Making matters worse, the company was unaware that some of these employees did not know how to properly interpret the results of the tests they were performing.

ConAgra has since made significant upgrades to its facilities and says that Peter Pan peanut butter is “is safe and wholesome for consumers to continue to eat.”

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