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.

Highlight on Minnesota: Blue Cross, medical cannabis, and baby chickens

BCBS customers feeling blue about next year

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota (BCBS) has given up the ghost and will not sell health plans to individuals and families next year. The company projected a loss of over $500 million in the individual market over three years, based on current trends, with a loss of $265 million reported in 2015. Premium revenue for individual plans did not come close to supporting claims. Individual market plans will still be available on a limited basis through Blue Plus HMO from the insurer’s parent company, which currently has about 13,000 members. Blue Plus covers a very small share of the market, considering that 103,000 state residents who have purchased BCBS coverage will have to go back to the drawing board during the next open enrollment period.

The company stated that it would be notifying each member, and committed to assisting all customers in transitioning to new coverage. The company also indicated its intent to continue working with state leadership to stabilize the market and find workable solutions. A spokesperson for MNsure, the state exchange, said about 20,000 of the soon to be displaced members purchased their BCBS plans on the exchange. The majority of these customers qualified for tax credits to make premiums more affordable, and they are encouraged to come back to MNsure to shop for coverage in order to maintain financial assistance.

New condition category for medical cannabis

Minnesota’s medical cannabis program will celebrate its first birthday by adding a new condition to its eligibility list: intractable pain. This type of chronic pain stems from a cause that cannot be removed and has resisted normal pain management methods, or those methods have caused intolerable side effects. Patients must be certified on the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) website by a provider, then registered to receive medical cannabis at one of eight state treatment centers. Medical cannabis is provided either in a pill or a liquid form.

Hands off the cute baby chicks

Young poultry may be more dangerous than they first appear. The MDH reports that nine cases of salmonella infections occurring from late April through mid-June of this year have been linked to baby chickens and other poultry (ducks, turkeys, or pheasants, specifically). Eight of the nine people who fell ill purchased young poultry this spring at local feed stores. The cases struck a wide range of ages, from 2 months to 66 years.

Birds that appear clean and healthy may have enough bacteria on their feet or feathers to infect a human. The MDH warns that young children, who are likely to be attracted to the baby birds, are at an increased risk for contracting salmonella and are also more likely to experience complications. Recommended precautions include thoroughly washing hands after contact with poultry, not allowing children under 5 years old to handle poultry, supervising older children closely, keeping food and drinks away from poultry, and avoiding contact with the face.