ConAgra to Pay Record $11.2M Fine for Peanut Butter Salmonella Outbreak
WASHINGTON, May 20 (UPI) — ConAgra Grocery Products agreed to pay a record $11.2 million fine after pleading guilty to shipping out salmonella-contaminated peanut butter in 2006 and 2007, sickening hundreds of people, the Department of Justice announced Wednesday.
The $8 million criminal fine — in addition to a $3.2 million forfeiture of assets — is the largest ever paid in a food safety case.
“The safety of the nation’s food supply is a top concern, and every company, large and small, must take appropriate measures to ensure that their products don’t make customers sick,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Mizer said in a news release announcing the fine. “No company can let down its guard when it comes to these kinds of microbiological contaminants. Salmonellosis is a serious condition, and a food like peanut butter can deliver it straight to children and other vulnerable populations.”
More than 700 cases of salmonellosis dating back to August 2006 were linked to salmonella-tainted Peter Pan brand and private label peanut butter during a February 2007 investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t link any deaths to the outbreak.
The contamination was traced to a plant in Sylvester, Ga., where it was determined a leaky roof allowed moisture into the facility, giving salmonella a chance to grow in raw peanuts and peanut dust. A faulty peanut roaster also prevented uniform heating of peanuts during the peanut butter-making process.
The plant was shut down and refitted to prevent future outbreaks. The investigation also found that ConAgra employees were not sufficiently trained to properly identify the existence of contaminants in the company’s products.
ConAgra said it invested $275 million in quality assurance infrastructure upgrades company-wide.
Al Boles, chief technical and operations officer for ConAgra Foods, said the company never knowingly shipped unsafe products for human consumption. The company said no finished product made between 2004 and 2007 tested positive for salmonella.
“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,” he said Wednesday. “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.”