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DOJ invites victims of Salmonella outbreak to criminal hearing

Invitations requiring no RSVPs are out to more than 150 people who suffered from Salmonella Tennessee 10 years ago from contaminated Peter Pan or Great Value peanut butter. They have been invited to the likely final hearing for United States of America v. ConAgra Grocery Products Company LLC.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Victim Notification System (VNS) has notified those seeking restitution about the plea and sentencing hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. Oct. 27 at the C.B. King U.S. Courthouse in Albany, GA.

peterpanplant_406x250“As a victim witness professional, my role is to assist you with information and services during the prosecution of this case. I am contacting you because you were identified by law enforcement as a victim during the investigation of the above criminal case,” states the VNS notice.

“The purpose of this hearing is for the defendant(s) to enter a plea of guilty. Your attendance is not required. If you are a victim of the charged offense(s) and wish to speak at the plea hearing, please call our office well in advance of the scheduled hearing date,” the VNS notice continues.

“You are welcome to attend this proceeding; however, unless you have received a subpoena, your attendance is not required by the Court. If you plan on attending, you may want to verify the date and time by using the VNS Call Center or website. If you are a victim of the charged offense(s) and wish to speak at sentencing, please call our office well in advance of the scheduled hearing date.”

The notice states that information victims sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office regarding the impact of the charged offense was provided to the U.S. Probation Office and the court.

“Submitting such information does not mean the Court will order restitution be paid to you in this case. The Court will determine the sentence to be imposed, including any criminal fine or restitution,” it adds.

A report from the U.S. Probation Office has been filed with the court, but it remains sealed. The  Department of Justice (DOJ) notice states that the probation office report was prepared with input from victims who were “financially, physically, and/or emotionally” impacted by the crime.

ConAgra Grocery Products Company, part of Chicago-based ConAgra Inc., reached an agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia on May 20, 2015, for the corporation to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of allowing a contaminated product to reach the marketplace. ConAgra has agreed to pay fines and forfeitures totaling $11 million.

To round up information for the restitution phase of the sentencing, however, federal Judge W. Louis Sands ordered DOJ to advertise on multiple dates in national newspapers to employ the VNS system to notify victims from the outbreak. That process held up the hearing where Sands will consider the plea agreement and make his sentencing determinations.

The Oct. 27 criminal hearing should be the last act for an outbreak that occurred between Oct. 5, 2006, and Feb. 14, 2007. The food safety investigations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Food and Drug Administration were over years ago. The civil cases also went down in tort history long ago.

But the criminal investigation into what happened at the ConAgra-owned peanut butter processing plant at Sylvester, GA, during 2006-07 was not brought to federal district court until May 20, 2015, when the information and plea agreement were filed.

ConAgra acknowledges company testing as early as 2004 found the presence of Salmonella in products. Measures were taken then to prevent shipment of contaminated peanut butter.

But, by 2006, multiple plant problems became apparent, including a leaky roof and a faulty peanut roaster. After the outbreak, ConAgra fixed those problems and brought in new food safety personnel.

Because of its success in the years since the outbreak, the plea agreement suggests corporate probation should not be required.

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