If you were eating Peter Pan peanut butter during the winter of 2006-07 and got sick, the federal government is about to come looking for you. And federal Judge W. Louis Sands wants a more robust search for victims of the Salmonella Tennessee outbreak now that Omaha-based ConAgra has agreed to accept responsibility for it.
Under the Crime Victims Right Act, consumers who bought Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter produced by ConAgra at the giant food conglomerate’s plant in Sylvester, GA, are entitled to be notified of certain court proceedings, including the sentencing of guilty parties.
The ConAgra Grocery Products Company has agreed to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor violation of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act for the 2006-07 Salmonella Tennessee outbreak that was traced back to the Sylvester plant.
Salmonella contamination from that facility spread to at least 44 states, infecting at least 700 people and sending 20 percent of them to hospitals.
Under its agreement with the government, ConAgra at sentencing has agreed to pay a fine and forfeiture totaling $11.2 million.
To get to sentencing, government attorneys from the Middle District of Georgia and the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch proposed an alternative procedure for notifying the victims because of the large number that “might assert that they are victims of the offense charged.”
Government attorneys said the ConAgra case is one with “multiple crime victims.”
“The number of potential victims is large,” they said. “At one point, employees with the Centers for Disease Control estimated that perhaps 20,000 individuals may have been sickened by the contaminated peanut butter during the 2006-07 outbreak.”
Rather than ask for a waiver from the notice requirements due to the large number of victims involved, government attorneys would like the court to accept two methods of contacting victims.
The first would be direct notice to known potential victims based on a list of 1,480 such people kept by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The second would be posting on DOJ’s website, which has been accepted by courts around the country in similar circumstances.
“After review of the Government’s motion and proposed order, the Court finds that the Government’s proposed notice is insufficient under the MVRA (Mandatory Victims Restitution Act),” Sands said in denying the government’s notice plan.
Instead, the judge has asked government attorneys to return within 30 days with a new plan that includes use of regional newspapers for getting the notice out to potential victims.
Before the 2006-07 Salmonella Tennessee outbreak, peanut butter was seen as both a safe and staple food. In the next five years, however, three other peanut butter manufacturers would be found responsible for Salmonella outbreaks involving multiple strains.
The Salmonella contamination at ConAgra’s Sylvester, GA, plant resulted from an old peanut roaster that was failing, a storm-damaged sugar silo that was allowing insects and birds to gain access, and a leaky roof that was allowing moisture to get into the production process.© Food Safety News