ConAgra to pay $11.2 million to settle salmonella criminal case

ConAgra Foods agreed Wednesday to pay $11.2 million to settle a federal criminal charge that the company shipped Peter Pan peanut butter tainted with salmonella from a plant in Georgia more than eight years ago, triggering a massive recall and food-safety investigation after more than 600 people got sick.

Federal prosecutors filed a single misdemeanor charge against the Omaha, Nebraska, based company along with a plea deal Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Georgia. No company executives were charged. Instead, ConAgra was charged as a company with one count of shipping adulterated food. The company agreed to pay $8 million in criminal fines and $3.2 million in forfeitures to the federal government.

In 2007, a salmonella outbreak blamed for sickening at least 625 people in 47 states was traced to the Sylvester, Georgia, plant where ConAgra made Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter. As a result, the company recalled all of its peanut butter that had been manufactured since 2004.

U.S. Attorney Michael Moore of Georgia's middle district, which handled the prosecution, said in a statement the plea and fine “should sound the alarm” to U.S. food producers that authorities are watching.

“A lot of people got very sick because of the conduct in this case and we are committed to doing all we can to make sure that does not happen again,” Moore said.

ConAgra Chief Operations Officer Al Bolles said the company didn't know its peanut butter was contaminated with salmonella before it was shipped, and it is committed to ensuring the safety of its products.

“We did not, and never will, knowingly ship a product that is not safe for consumers,” Bolles said. “We've invested heavily in leading-edge food safety technology and practices over the past eight years, and we are thankful for all of the people who recognize that.”

The ConAgra plea deal, which still must be approved by a federal judge, extends a recent string of high-profile food safety prosecutions.

Two former Iowa egg industry executives were sentenced to three months in jail earlier this year for their roles in a 2010 salmonella outbreak. Last year, two Colorado cantaloupe farmers received probation after being convicted in a deadly 2011 listeria outbreak. And last fall, the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, Stewart Parnell, was convicted in a 2008 salmonella outbreak also linked to peanuts processed in Georgia. Parnell still awaits sentencing and could face prison.

ConAgra officials blamed moisture from a leaky roof and a malfunctioning sprinkler system at its Georgia production plant for helping salmonella bacteria grow on raw peanuts. The plant was upgraded and ConAgra adopted new testing procedures before reintroducing Peter Pan peanut butter a few months after the recall.

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