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150-plus Peter Pan restitution claims possible in ConAgra case

Since a Salmonella Tennessee outbreak was traced to Peter Pan and certain Great Value peanut butters almost 10 years ago, the government has been looking for victims. That search has delayed the plea hearing and sentencing of ConAgra Grocery Products Co. LLC, which produced the contaminated peanut butter in Sylvester, GA, back in 2006-07.

peterpan_406x250This past July 22, U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands ordered government attorneys to conduct the search for victims under the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

At least 425 people across 44 states were confirmed with the outbreak strain, according to the final report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Graham A. Thorpe, assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, says the government “has sought to identify potential victims pursuant to a nationwide advertisement in USA Today, as ordered by the Court.”

In addition, Thorpe said the government has used a Department of Justice (DOJ) website to further locate and identify potential victims. The DOJ also sent victim notification letters to known potential victims.

“In these ways potential victims were advised of their rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and that they could sent in a Victim Impact Statement,” according to a report Thorpe prepared for Sands.

The government has received about 150 Victim Impact Statements, including those that assert claims for court-ordered restitution. Anyone filing a statement is also being asked to complete a more detailed questionnaire. Thorpe provided the court with a copy of the questionnaire.

About 100 completed questionnaires have been submitted. Questions include names and ages of anyone in the victims’ families who were sickened, along with detailed medical information. Anyone who has already been compensated is being asked to provide that information, too.

The Victim Impact Statements and the completed questionnaires were recently furnished to the U.S. Probation Office, which will provide Sands with specific recommendations before any restitution hearings.

According to Thorpe’s March 23 report, the victim information has not yet been made available to the defense attorneys for ConAgra.

“Counsel for the government and counsel for the defendant intend to file a joint motion to disclose the claims information and Victim Impact Statements to the defendant at the appropriate time,” Thorpe wrote.

“After U.S. Probation and counsel for the Defendant have had an opportunity to address restitution claims, the parties will be in a position to move this court to schedule the plea hearing and sentencing hearing.”

If the judge goes along with the May 2015 plea bargain between the government and defense attorneys, he’ll accept ConAgra’s guilty plea to one misdemeanor count and will impose fines of $8.01 million and forfeitures of $3.2 million.

The total restitution amount is not yet known.

The CDC's final report on the 2006-07 outbreak includes this map showing states where victims of Salmonella Tennessee lived.

The CDC’s final report on the 2006-07 outbreak includes this map showing states where victims of Salmonella Tennessee lived shaded in blue.

ConAgra is pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor count of introducing an adulterated food into interstate commerce for shipping contaminated peanut butter from the Georgia facility between Oct. 6, 2006, and Feb. 14, 2007.

The government is not recommending any probationary period for the company, largely because of its near-decade operation of the Sylvester, GA, peanut butter plant without problems. ConAgra will be required to report on the anniversary date of the executed agreement with written confirmation that its food safety and quality program are being followed.

A number of failures are believed to have contributed to the contaminated Peter Pan and Great Value brands at that time. An older peanut roaster was not sufficiently heating raw peanuts, a sugar silo was storm damaged, and birds and bees were taking advantage of a leaky roof.

ConAgra Grocery Products Co. is a unit of ConAgra Foods, with annual sales of $15.8 billion and 20,000 employees.  Long based in Omaha, ConAgra Foods this summer will re-locate to Chicago.

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