WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice has issued a criminal fine against ConAgra Foods, Inc., which is now doing business as Conagra Brands, Chicago, of $8 million. The company must also forfeit $3.2 million in assets, according to a plea agreement filed last year and finalized by the two parties on Dec. 13.
The fine stems from a 2007 case in which the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced an outbreak of Salmonella infections throughout the United States to peanut butter shipped from a Sylvester, Ga., plant, owned and operated by Conagra. The C.D.C. identified more than 700 illnesses of Salmonellosis linked to the outbreak.
Conagra halted production at the Sylvester plant on Feb. 14, 2007. The company also recalled all peanut butter that had been manufactured at the plant since January 2004. To improve the Sylvester facility, Conagra took such steps as replacing the roof of the plant and enhancing policies and procedures for the manufacture of peanut butter. Peter Pan peanut butter then was re-introduced to the market in August 2007.
On May 20, 2015, the company pled guilty to one count of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
|Benjamin C. Mizer, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division|
“This case demonstrates companies — both large and small — must be vigilant about food safety,” said Benjamin C. Mizer, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “We rely every day on food processors and handlers to meet the high standards required to keep our food free of harmful contamination.”
As part of the plea agreement, Conagra admitted it had previously been aware of some risk of Salmonella contamination in peanut butter. On two dates in October 2004, routine testing at the Sylvester plant revealed what later was confirmed to be Salmonella in samples of finished peanut butter. Company employees attempting to locate the cause of the contamination identified several potential contributing factors, 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 move around the plant. As stated in the plea agreement, while efforts to address some of the issues had occurred or were under way, the company did not fully correct the conditions until after the 2006 through 2007 outbreak.
In public statements after the 2007 recall, Conagra executives said that moisture may have entered the production process and enabled the growth of Salmonella present in the raw peanuts or peanut dust.
The company also admitted in the plea agreement that between October 2004 and February 2007, employees charged with analyzing finished product tests at the Sylvester plant failed to detect Salmonella in the peanut butter, and that the company was unaware some of the employees did not know how to properly interpret the results of the tests.
|Stephen Ostroff, deputy commissioner of foods and veterinary medicine at the F.D.A.|
“Product safety has to be a high priority for every manufacturer of foods sold in the United States,” said Stephen M. Ostroff, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the F.D.A. “(The) F.D.A. is working with food producers to promote compliance with food safety requirements, but if problems occur and are willfully ignored, we will use all available resources to protect American consumers from unsafe food.”