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ConAgra inches closer to sentencing for Peter Pan outbreak

ConAgra Grocery Products Co. pleaded guilty a year ago to a one count violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, but has yet to be sentenced for the federal misdemeanor.

peterpanplant_406x250Government attorneys signed plea bargain agreement with ConAgra on May 20, 2015, with the company entering a plea of guilty to the single federal misdemeanor.

Sentencing, however, has been held up mostly because of a July 22, 2015, order signed by U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands, requiring the government to conduct an expanded search for victims of a 2006-07 Salmonella Tennessee outbreak traced back to ConAgra’s peanut butter processing plant in Sylvester, GA.

Sands ordered nationwide newspaper advertisements and other measures so the government could complete “Victim Impact Statements” for inclusion in the pre-sentence report. ConAgra made both Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butters at the Sylvester facility.

The two peanut butter brands were blamed for making at least 425 people across 44 states sick with the outbreak strain of Salmonella T., according to the final report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“Now that the compilation of victim information has been concluded, both the government and defendant desire too move forward to a final resolution including either a single hearing date for both the entry of a guilty plea and sentencing, or alternatively a hearing date for the entry of a guilty please and a sentencing date,” said assistant U.S. attorney Graham A. Thorpe.

In response to a request from both Thorpe and ConAgra, Judge Sands on April 26 ordered the U.S. Probation Office to disclose the Victim Impact Statements to defense attorneys. They were instructed to take steps to insure that no victim’s confidential medical information is made public.

Sands also ordered the parties to get back to him with a status report within 60 days. Under the plea bargain, ConAgra has agreed to enter a plea of guilty to the misdemeanor and pay a fine of $8.01 million and forfeitures of $3.2 million in addition to any restitution ordered by the court.

The judge’s approval is required to make the deal final.

Government attorneys in March said they’d received about 150 Victim Impact Statements and were getting each victim to complete a detailed questionnaire with details of their illnesses that were related to the outbreak.

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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