In one of the largest ever food safety fine and forfeiture case a producer of Honey Smacks cereal pleaded guilty to operating in unsanitary conditions that resulted in an outbreak of Salmonella infections.

The $19.2 million payment is part of a federal plea agreement with food and ingredient manufacturing company Kerry Inc., according to an announcement from the U.S. Department of Justice. The department reported that it is the largest such settlement in a food safety case. Kerry is scheduled to be sentenced on March 14.

The 2018 outbreak sickened at least 135 people according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No one died, but 34 people had to be hospitalized. The outbreak spanned 36 states. The outbreak was determined to be over in September 2018. The CDC reported that many more people were likely sickened in the outbreak because of the conditions at the plant being multi-year and some people probably did not seek treatment for illnesses.

In June 2018 the Kellogg’s Company recalled all Honey Smacks cereal made from 2017 forward.

“Laboratory testing identified the outbreak strain of Salmonella Mbandaka in a sample of unopened Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal collected from a retail location in California,” according to the CDC. “Laboratory testing also identified the outbreak strain in samples of leftover Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal collected from the homes of ill people in Montana, New York, and Utah.”

Documents unsealed today revealed that Salmonella had been found on an ongoing basis at the Kerry manufacturing plant in Gridley, IL. During the time period June 2016 to June 2018, routine environmental tests detected Salmonella in the plant 81 times, including at least one positive Salmonella sample each month.

According to the plea agreement with the company, employees at the Gridley facility routinely failed to implement corrective and preventative actions to address positive Salmonella tests.

In a related case, Ravi K. Chermala, Kerry’s Director of Quality Assurance until September 2018, previously pleaded guilty to three federal misdemeanor counts of causing the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce. Chermala oversaw the sanitation programs at various Kerry manufacturing plants, including the Gridley facility. 

“In pleading guilty, Chermala admitted that between June 2016 and June 2018, he directed subordinates not to report certain information to Kellogg’s about conditions at the Gridley facility,” according to the Justice Department.

“In addition, Chermala admitted that he directed subordinates at the Gridley facility to alter the plant’s program for monitoring for the presence of pathogens in the plant, limiting the facility’s ability to accurately detect insanitary conditions. Chermala is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 16.”

The Food and Drug Administration is continuing to investigate the situation and may forward additional information to the Justice Department seeking action against additional individuals or the Kellogg’s Company.

Assistant Commissioner Justin D. Green for the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations said: “We will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who put the public health at risk by allowing contaminated foods to enter the U.S. marketplace.”

The Justice Department’s Senior Trial Attorney James T. Nelson of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch is prosecuting the case. Former Trial Attorney Cody Matthew Herche and Associate Chief Counsel Jason Hadges of FDA’s Office of Chief Counsel provided substantial assistance.

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