The plea, part of a bargain struck with government attorneys more than a year ago, caused Judge W. Louis Sands to impose the agreed upon $8 million criminal fine on ConAgra, along with an additional $3.2 million asset forfeiture.
ConAgra, one of the largest and most profitable food production companies in the United States, recently pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of shipping adulterated food across state lines. The agreed-upon fine of $8 million—and $3.2 million in asset forfeitures—is the largest criminal fine ever imposed in a U.S. food safety case.
Despite complex legal maneuvering by both sides, the presiding judge finally concluded the decade-old ordeal in a hearing that lasted nearly five hours. The plea deal, approved December 13, 2016, by Judge W. Louis Sands of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia brought closure to a complex public health, regulatory, and criminal case that has been widely publicized since 2007.
ConAgra Grocery Products LLC, a food production subsidiary of ConAgra, produces and sells various food products under a number of brand names. Some of the company’s most well-known brands include Egg Beaters, Peter Pan, Slim Jim, Healthy Choice, Marie Callender’s, Orville Redenbacher, P.F. Chang, and many others.
The unfolding of events started in 2006, when physicians around the country were reporting severe gastrointestinal illnesses stemming from salmonella bacteria. Shortly thereafter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined this to be a foodborne outbreak, and the organization subsequently launched an investigation.
Following laboratory testing and other investigatory processes, investigators were eventually able to pinpoint the source: contaminated peanut butter from a ConAgra production plant in Sylvester, Georgia. Samples taken from the plant confirmed the presence of Salmonella Tennessee, the bacterium responsible for the outbreak.
Government investigators point to “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 contributing factors. As a result, the peanut butter product manufactured at the plant was contaminated.
In response, ConAgra issued a massive voluntary recall and terminated production at the plant in February 2007. The company instructed consumers who purchased Peter Pan and other private label peanut butter products since January 2004 to discard or return the product immediately.
Public Health and Financial Costs
The outbreak, caused by the strain Salmonella Tennessee, sickened at least 700 individuals across 47 states. Around 20 percent of the people infected (about 140 individuals) were hospitalized. Fortunately, no deaths were reported. However, the CDC estimates that thousands of additional cases likely went unreported.
Aside from human costs, the company also incurred significant expenses. Firstly, Peter Pan peanut butter was unavailable for sale for nearly six months. In the interim, the company paid nearly $300 million to restructure the Sylvester plant—a necessary investment in order to resume safe operations.
In an attempt to prevent future outbreaks, ConAgra reportedly implemented a new food safety testing system. The company also reportedly developed a new screening process for all peanut butter products.
As a result of the outbreak investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed criminal charges with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, alleging that “the company introduced salmonella-contaminated Peter Pan peanut butter into interstate commerce during the outbreak.” The plea agreement was filed on May 20, 2015.
In a DOJ press release announcing Judge Sands’ acceptance of the plea deal, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer commented, “This case demonstrates companies—both large and small—must be vigilant about food safety.”
The specific allegation, according to official government record, reads:
“…on or about December 7, 2006, the company shipped from Georgia to Texas peanut butter that was adulterated, in that it contained salmonella and had been prepared under conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with salmonella.”
The plea agreement includes verbiage wherein the company admits the presence of salmonella in nine different samples obtained by investigators at the Sylvester plant—all within a six-month timeframe. Perhaps the most damaging information relative to these samples is the fact that they were acquired following the recall.
Additionally, the company acknowledged having discovered the presence of salmonella in samples of finished peanut butter on two occasions, both in October 2004, during routine facility testing. According to the plea agreement, the company did not seek to “fully correct” potential causes of salmonella contamination until after the 2006 through 2007 outbreak.
One aspect of the plea agreement considered both surprising and disappointing to many was Judge Sands’ ruling that there was no statutory basis to demand the company pay restitution to victims, even though it was Judge Sands who previously required the government to spend almost a year identifying victims for possible compensation. However, ConAgra previously paid more than $36 million to thousands of consumers in other settlements related to the recall.