ConAgra Foods enters final plea deal for salmonella peanut butter transgression

ConAgra will pay $11.2m - the largest fine ever in a food safety case - for distributing salmonella-tainted peanut butter. Pic: ©iStock/Roel Smart

ConAgra has entered a final plea deal in a criminal misdemeanour charge of violating the US Food Drug and Cosmetic Act.

The Peter Pan peanut butter manufacturer will pay a criminal fine of $11.2m for distributing peanut butter products tainted by salmonella that sickened more than 700 people in 2006 and 2007, announced the US Department of Justice (DOJ).

While there were no fatalities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that thousands more cases went unreported, it said.

End in sight

“We are pleased to finalize the resolution regarding the 2007 voluntary peanut butter recall. Nothing is more important to us than the safety and quality of the food we make,” Daniel Hare, ConAgra’s Communication & External Relations liaison told BakeryAndSnacks.

“We regret the incident and how it impacted our customers and consumers.

“The investments we’ve made in our facilities, employees and programs over the past nine years have allowed us to make quality peanut butter ever since and we are confident that we will continue to offer Peter Pan as a safe, wholesome food in the years to come,” he added.

Unknown risks brought to light

In 2007, peanut butter made at ConAgra’s plant in Sylvester, Georgia, was found to be contaminated with salmonella.

Up until then, it was generally believed by food safety experts and the regulatory community that the low moisture content of finished peanut butter inhibited the growth of bacteria such as salmonella.

However, routine testing found salmonella in samples of finished peanut butter back in October 2004, reported the DOJ.

Some of the contributing factors, the company believes, could have be an old peanut roaster that wasn’t uniformly heating raw peanuts, and a storm-damaged sugar silo and a leaky roof that let moisture into the plant.

It also acknowledged that it had been unaware that some employees didn’t know how to properly conduct contamination tests and failed to detect salmonella in some samples, according to federal prosecutors.

The 2004 product was destroyed prior to shipment and no further adulterations were found until 2007.

A bitter pill

The discovery prompted the company to voluntarily recall all of its peanut butter products and production was stopped for almost six months while the plant was upgraded.

“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,” Al Bolles, former chief technical and operations officer for ConAgra Foods, said in a statement at the time.

This case has provided new insight into the essential components of making safe peanut butter, but it’s been an expensive lesson.

ConAgra Grocery Products Co. will pay a criminal fine of $8m and agree to forfeit $3.2 million in pleading guilty – the largest fine ever in a food safety case. More than $275 was invested in quality assurance infrastructure upgrades and the company no doubt felt the impact of the loss of sales while the facility was overhauled.

It also reimbursed and compensated impacted consumers and customers.

“This case demonstrates companies – both large and small – must be vigilant about food safety,” the DOJ’s principal deputy assistant attorney general Benjamin C. Mize said in a statement.

“We rely every day on food processors and handlers to meet the high standards required to keep our food free of harmful contamination.”

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