Omaha-based ConAgra Foods Inc. has reached a plea agreement with U.S. attorneys that will see its ConAgra Grocery Products Company plead guilty to a single misdemeanor violation of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
If accepted by the U.S. District Court in Albany, GA, the plea agreement will end the government’s investigation into the 2006-07 Salmonella Tennessee outbreak that was blamed on ConAgra’s Peter Pan peanut butter produced in Sylvester, GA.
Peter Pan peanut butter was recalled as the outbreak strain eventually spread to 44 states, infecting at least 700 people and sending about 20 percent of them to hospitals. The outbreak did not result in any deaths.
“Before the 2007 recall, food safety experts and the regulatory community believed that salmonella was unlikely to be present in finished peanut butter products,” ConAgra stated Wednesday. “It was generally believed that the low moisture content of finished peanut butter inhibited the growth of bacteria such as salmonella.”
The problem was traced to an old peanut roaster not uniformly heating, a storm-damaged sugar silo which was permitting the entry of birds and insects, and a leaky roof, which may have allowed moisture into the production process.
The company said that it gained “new insight” from the outbreak and recall of its Peter Pan products, which has been applied in the Sylvester, GA, plant since it re-opened in August 2007. ConAgra said that today its Peter Pan peanut butter is safe and wholesome.
Under the plea agreement, ConAgra agrees to pay a fine and forfeiture totaling $11.2 million. The government agreed to no corporate probation since the company has no no violations in the past eight years since the outbreak.
Expenses since the Peter Pan recall, including payments to victims, upgrading the Sylvester plant, and enhancing food safety practices company-wide, have cost ConAgra about $275 million. The company is one of the largest of its kind in the world.
The “negotiated resolution” with the federal government announced today includes acknowledgement that ConAgra was a responsible actor in the 2007 event, that none of its testing from 2004 to 2007 found any contamination, and that the government accepts that ConAgra shared information with both its competitors and the government concerning the safe manufacture of peanut butter.
The plea agreement requires approval by U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands.© Food Safety News