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Year-long hunt finds almost 200 Peter Pan, Great Value victims

Close to 200 victims of the Salmonella serotype Tennessee outbreak that ended in early 2007 are in line for restitution when ConAgra Grocery Products Co. appears in federal court for sentencing.

Credit for finding so many documented victims of a nearly decade-old outbreak goes to federal Judge W. Louis Sands, who has delayed proceedings in the case for more than a year to give the government time to reach out to victims and their families.

peterpan_406x250According to the latest status report filed with his U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, more than 150 victim statements and victim claims for restitution were ready in April. An additional 42 claimants were filed with the court as of June 8 and were immediately disclosed to defense counsel.

ConAgra owns the Sylvester, GA, peanut processing plant that late in 2006 and early 2007 was associated with the 44-state outbreak of Salmonella Tennessee that sickened at least 425 people. Peter Pan and Great Value brands of peanut butter, sold in retail stores, were blamed for the outbreak.

On May 20, 2015, the government charged ConAgra with one misdemeanor count of violating the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The Justice Department and the company filed a signed plea agreement with the court, with ConAgra agreeing to plead guilty.

“Both the government and counsel for the defendant are in the process of reviewing and evaluating the statements and supporting documents submitted by potential victims, including those submitted on June 8,” said Graham A. Thorpe, assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, in the latest status report.

The parties expect to complete the review and provide an assessment of the materials no later than July 29.

“At that time, and in consultation with the U.S. Probation Office, both counsel anticipate requesting a hearing and/or status conference with the court to address the issues of victim restitution, and timing in relation to either a single hearing date or both entry of a guilty plea and sentencing or alternatively a hearing date for the entry of a guilty plea and sentencing date,” Thorpe added.

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 agreement does not include any probationary period for the company, largely because it has been operating the Sylvester, GA, peanut butter plant for almost a decade since the outbreak 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.

Multiple failures are believed to have contributed to the contamination of Peter Pan and Great Value branded peanut butter. 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., a unit of ConAgra Foods, has annual sales of $15.8 billion and 20,000 employees. Long based in Omaha, NE, ConAgra Foods is relocating to Chicago this summer.

Peanut butter from different manufacturers became poisoned three times between 2006 and 2012.

  • The outbreak involving Peter Pan and Great Value, both made in the Sylvester, GA, plant, was first in 2006-07.
  • Two years later, peanut butter and peanut paste made by the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America at nearby Blakely, GA, was blamed for the Salmonella serotype Typhimurium outbreak that sickened 714 people in 46 states. Nine people died. A 76-count federal criminal indictment led to convictions of five former executives involved with PCA. They are now serving prison sentences that total 62 years for the group.
  • In 2012, Sunland Inc. in Portales, NM, was blamed for an outbreak of Salmonella Bredeney involving 42 people in 20 states. FDA suspended Sunland’s food facility registration before the plant was sold. No criminal charges were filed.

The now-closed Portales peanut processing plant was purchased out of the Sunland bankruptcy for $26 million in March of 2014 and then resold to Ready Roast a year later. Ready Roast has three plants in California, where the company is based. The Portales facility reopened as the Ready Roast Nut Company’s fourth plant in September 2015, returning as many as 200 jobs to the small New Mexico community.

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