The judge who knows the more about poison peanut butter than anyone else on the federal bench wants to know what’s up with Peter Pan.
Judge W. Louis Sands of the U.S District Court of the Middle District of Georgia gave the government until March 24 to determine the status of U.S. v ConAgra Grocery Products Co. LLC, which produces Peter Pan peanut butter.
Sands has a unique peanut butter perspective, having presided over the unrelated, three-year Peanut Corporation of America criminal case that overlapped on his docket with ConAgra’s case.
There hasn’t been any action in the ConAgra case since July 2015 when Sands ordered the federal government to conduct a larger outreach program to notify victims of the Salmonella Tennessee outbreak linked to ConAgra’s Peter Pan peanut butter.
With Sands’ imposition of the March 24 deadline, the case is expected to move forward fairly quickly to its final act.
More than seven months ago in the ConAgra case, Sands ordered the federal government to advertise in national newspapers as a means of notifying victims of a 2006-07 Salmonella Tennessee outbreak traced to the company’s Peter Pan peanut butter produced in Sylvester, GA.
Two months before that, in May 2015, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia and the Department of Justice (DOJ) Consumer Protection Branch negotiated a plea agreement with ConAgra to allow the company to plead guilty to a single federal misdemeanor in relation to the outbreak, which included at least 425 people with confirmed Salmonella Tennessee infections.
Under the plea deal, ConAgra will admit to a single misdemeanor count of allowing the entry of adulterated food into interstate commerce in relation to shipments of contaminated peanut butter from Oct. 6, 2006, through Feb. 14, 2007. People in 46 states were confirmed sick with the outbreak isolates of Salmonella Tennessee, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the plea agreement, ConAgra agrees it owns and operates the peanut butter processing plant in Sylvester, GA, and that it is the only location where it makes peanut butter. Under the plea agreement, ConAgra accepts responsibility for the 46-state outbreak.
As part of the deal, ConAgra agreed to pay an $8.01 million fine and a $3.2 million forfeiture on top of the standard $125 special assessment. ConAgra and the government agree the fine and forfeiture payments “represent a fair and just resolution of all issues associated with loss and fine calculations.”
Finally, the government and ConAgra agreed no corporate probation is required because of ConAgra’s track record since the outbreak. In the more than eight years since February 2007, there haven’t been any documented violations of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by the defendant at the Sylvester, GA, peanut processing plant, according to court documents.
At the time of the outbreak and subsequent recall, ConAgra produced both Peter Pan and Great Value brands of peanut butter at the Sylvester factory. Multiple factors caused the contamination of the peanut butter, according to court records. A dated peanut roaster was not sufficiently heating raw peanuts, a sugar silo was damaged by a storm, and birds and bees were taking advantage of a leaky roof.
The plea agreement and sentencing require approvals from Sands. After that, ConAgra must, on the first two anniversaries of the execution of the agreement, provide the DOJ with written confirmation that its food safety and quality program are being followed at the Sylvester plant.
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