Conagra Brands has been hit with the “largest” fine imposed in relation to a food safety case in the US after pleading guilty to shipping contaminated peanut butter in relation to a 2006-2007 salmonella outbreak.

The outbreak linked to the group’s peanut butter sickened more than 700 people in 47 states. The US Department of Justice said Conagra’s subsidiary, ConAgra Grocery Products, will pay a US$8m criminal fine and forfeit an additional $3.2m in assets. “The sentence represents the largest fine ever paid in a food safety case,” the DoJ said. 

In the guilty plea, ConAgra admitted it introduced contaminated Peter Pan branded and private-label peanut butter products manufactured at the company’s plant in Sylvester, Georgia, to interstate commerce in violation of the US Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. 

The criminal case also stipulated the peanut butter had been prepared under conditions where it may have become contaminated with salmonella. The company admitted in the plea agreement samples obtained after the recall showed peanut butter made at the Sylvester plant on nine different dates between August 2006 and January 2007 were contaminated with salmonella. Environmental testing conducted after the recall identified the same strain of salmonella in “at least nine locations” throughout the Sylvester plant, the DoJ noted. 

As part of the plea agreement, the company admitted it had previously been aware of “some risk” of salmonella contamination in peanut butter.  On two dates in October 2004, routine testing at the Sylvester plant revealed what later was confirmed to be salmonella in samples of finished peanut butter.  

“This case demonstrates companies – both large and small – must be vigilant about food safety,” said principal deputy assistant attorney general Benjamin Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.  “We rely every day on food processors and handlers to meet the high standards required to keep our food free of harmful contamination.”

In February 2007, the US Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced an ongoing outbreak of salmonellosis cases in the US to Peter Pan and private label peanut butter produced and shipped from ConAgra’s Sylvester, Georgia, peanut butter plant.  

The company voluntarily ceased production at the plant and recalled all peanut butter manufactured there since January 2004.  

The CDC identified “more than” 700 cases of salmonellosis linked to the outbreak and estimated thousands of additional related cases went unreported. The CDC did not identify any deaths related to the outbreak. 

“Consumers are at the mercy of food merchants when it comes to the wholesomeness and healthiness of the food we consume and, as the result, a great responsibility is imposed by law on those merchants and manufacturers,” said US attorney G. F. Peterman III for the Middle District of Georgia.  

“Likewise, agriculture is Georgia’s largest industry and peanuts and peanut products are a major factor in the health of that industry.  While ConAgra did take corrective action eventually, by failing to timely recognise and rectify the problem of salmonella contamination, this company damaged the health of both public consumers and of the agricultural industry overall… I hope that it will serve as a reminder to others in the industry of the high cost of failing to protect the public that relies on them to properly meet this responsibility.”