ConAgra subsidiary hit with $8M criminal penalty for role in salmonella-tainted peanut butter poisonings

ConAgra Grocery Products LLC, a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Inc., pleaded guilty to a criminal misdemeanor charge that it had shipped contaminated peanut butter linked to a 2006 through 2007 nationwide outbreak of salmonellosis, or salmonella poisoning, the Department of Justice announced. Following its guilty plea, the company was sentenced to pay an $8 million criminal fine and forfeit an additional $3.2 million in assets. The sentence represents the largest fine ever paid in a food safety case. ConAgra Grocery Products LLC is based in Omaha, Nebraska, with a manufacturing facility in Sylvester, Georgia.

The criminal information specifically alleged that 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 might have become contaminated with salmonella.

The company’s guilty plea was entered pursuant to a plea agreement filed last year in federal district court in the Middle District of (see ConAgra to pay $11.2M for its peanut butter and salmonella sandwich, May 20, 2015). In pleading guilty to violating the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDC Act), the company not only admitted that it had been aware of some risk of salmonella contamination in peanut butter, but it also admitted that (1) it had introduced Peter Pan and private label peanut butter contaminated with salmonella into interstate commerce during the salmonellosis outbreak; (2) samples obtained after a 2007 recall showed that peanut butter made at the Sylvester plant on nine different dates between August 2006, and January 2007, was contaminated with salmonella; (3) 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 (4) it was not aware some of the employees did not know how to properly interpret the results of the tests.

Following the outbreak and shutdown, the company made significant upgrades to the Sylvester plant to address conditions the company identified after the 2004 incident as potential factors that could contribute to salmonella contamination, according to the Department of Justice. The company also instituted new and enhanced safety protocols and procedures regarding manufacturing, testing and sanitation, which it affirmed in the plea agreement it would continue to follow.