ConAgra Foods, Inc.—an American food corporation based in Chicago—produces and sells an assortment of food products, including the popular Peter Pan peanut butter brand. The company also manufactures Healthy Choice, Hunt’s, Slim Jim, Reddi-Wip, and Marie Callender’s brands.
In terms of scale, ConAgra is considered among the largest food manufacturers in the United States. According to its 2016 annual report, the company employs a workforce of over 20,000 people. The annual report also stated that the company’s annual net sales totaled more than $11.6 billion, with $1.7 billion in operating profit.
However, the conglomerate has more recently become known for its widely publicized foodborne illness outbreaks and product recalls. It is now in the final stages of resolving longstanding litigation stemming from a 2007 salmonellosis outbreak—a nearly decade-long ordeal.
Synopsis of Events
In November 2006, health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noticed an upward trend in reported cases involving the Salmonella Tennessee subtype. Attempting to discover the source, officials launched a multi-state investigation in February 2007. Shortly thereafter, investigators pinpointed the source: Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter brands, both of which were produced by ConAgra Foods at the same plant in Sylvester, Georgia. ConAgra voluntarily recalled all peanut butter manufactured at the plant since January 2004.
Investigations at the Sylvester plant led to the conclusion that a number of factors contributed to the contamination. An outdated peanut roaster was not heating raw product to required specifications, which likely contributed to illness-inducing adulteration of the products. Additionally, one of the plant’s sugar silos was damaged, and a leaking roof allowed wildlife such as birds to feed on the exposed elements.
According to the CDC, more than 700 people across 47 states were infected with the Salmonella Tennessee serotype from the peanut butter. Additionally, it was estimated that thousands of illnesses went unreported. In its reports, the CDC compared its findings against the rarity of the subtype involved in the outbreak: a meager 0.1 percent of all salmonellosis cases are attributed to Tennessee strains of Salmonella. Prior to the ConAgra outbreak, an average of 52 out of nearly 5,200 annual salmonellosis cases were ascribed to this type of Salmonella.
As a result of investigations, ConAgra ceased production of the peanut butter and closed down operations at the Sylvester plant.
Following the investigations, federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against ConAgra. Presiding attorneys announced the filing, citing misdemeanor violations of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
In a Department of Justice (DOJ) press release in 2015, Stuart Delery, Acting Associate Attorney General, stressed the importance of corporate responsibility by citing the young victims: “As parents, we can make sure that our kids look both ways before they cross the street and wear a helmet when they ride their bikes, but we have to rely on the companies to make sure their food is safe. That’s why the Department of Justice is dedicated to using all the tools we have to ensure the processors and handlers of our food live up to their legal obligations to keep the public’s safety in mind.”
The criminal complaint was filed in the US District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, and specifically alleges that in December 2006, ConAgra shipped adulterated peanut butter containing Salmonella from Georgia to Texas—a violation of interstate commerce law. Furthermore, the criminal complaint specifies the fact that the products were produced under conditions that permitted them to be contaminated with Salmonella.
In a plea agreement, the company’s legal representatives admitted that, on nine different dates between August 2006 and January 2007, peanut butter products containing Salmonella were produced at the plant. The prosecuting attorneys included environmental test results that identified and confirmed the Tennessee strain of Salmonella on these nine occasions—a fact that was also affirmed by ConAgra’s legal representatives.
As a result of the plea agreement, ConAgra must plead guilty and pay a criminal fine of $8 million and forfeit assets totaling $3.2 million, for a total penalty of $11.2 million. The DOJ reported that this is the largest amount ever paid in a food safety case.
US Attorney Michael Moore of the Middle District of Georgia, the attorney that initially filed the lawsuit, summarized the court’s findings and subsequent penalties:
“We count on the companies who prepare and package the things we eat to be just as concerned with the product we put in our mouths as they are with the profit they put in their pockets. The proposed criminal fine and sentence in this case should sound the alarm to food companies across the country—we are watching, and we are expecting you to hold yourselves to a standard reflective of the trust that your consumers have placed in you. No more excuses. A lot of people got very sick because of the conduct in this case and we are committed to doing all we can to make sure that does not happen again.”