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Biggest criminal fine ever in food safety case; zip for restitution

Leo A. Knowles, president of ConAgra Grocery Products Company LLC, appeared in federal court in Albany, GA, Tuesday to put a human face on the corporate entity pleading guilty to a criminal misdemeanor charge of shipping peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, causing a nationwide outbreak a decade ago.

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The federal courthouse in Albany, GA.

The plea, part of a bargain struck with government attorneys more than a year ago, caused Judge W. Louis Sands to impose the agreed upon $8 million criminal fine on ConAgra, along with an additional $3.2 million asset forfeiture.

In a news release, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said the fine was the largest in history for a food safety case.

One surprise during the hearing, which lasted more than four and a half hours, was a ruling from the bench by Judge Sands that there was no statutory basis for restitution in the case. It was Sands who required the government to spend the better part of a year identifying victims of the nearly 10-year-old Salmonella outbreak for possible restitution.

The department, advertising in the newspaper USA Today and on its own website, managed to round up about 150 victims, who were asked to submit verifying information. Some victim impact statements and restitution requests were submitted during the Tuesday hearing.

But in the end, Sands concluded the proceedings with nothing further going to victims. Civil claims related to the illnesses were settled years ago. The criminal case was filed along with the plea agreement in May 2015 after years of investigation.

Omaha-based ConAgra Grocery Products owns the peanut processing facility in Sylvester, GA, that 10 years ago was making Peter Pan brand and Wal-Mart’s Great Value brand peanut butter. It is a unit of the Chicago-based food conglomerate ConAgra Inc.

“This case demonstrates companies — both large and small – must be vigilant about food safety,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer. “We rely every day on food processors and handlers to meet the high standards required to keep our food free of harmful contamination.”

Mizer, who heads DOJ’s civil division, has emerged as a top decision-maker in food safety litigation, including criminal cases that are on appeal.

The Sylvester facility terminated production on Feb. 14, 2007, and recalled all its peanut butter production going back to 2004because of the outbreak, which eventually caused more than 700 illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate thousands of other Salmonella infections were caused by the popular peanut butters, but were not reported or confirmed by public health officials. No deaths were confirmed in the outbreak.

The specific criminal action for which ConAgra pleaded guilty was a shipment of peanut butter product shipped to Texas from the plant in Georgia. The company admitted making contaminated peanut butter on at least nine different dates, and the same strain of Salmonella was found inside the plant during environmental testing.

G.F. “Pete” Peterman III, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said ConAgra did take corrective action “eventually,” but suggested swifter action was required. He said the company damaged both consumers and the state’s agricultural industry.

ConAgra had discovered as early as 2004 that it was having a problem with Salmonella contamination. Early attention was focused on an older peanut roaster that was not heating in a uniform manner. It then turned to a damaged sugar silo, a leaky roof and airflow problems that caused condensation in the plant, which then dripped into products.

The company spent $275 million on capital improvements to solve those problems.

Stephen M. Ostroff, deputy commission for foods and veterinary medicine at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said product safety has to be a high priority, but if “willfully ignored,” all available resources will be brought out to protect American consumers. FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations was charged with investigating ConAgra.

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