ConAgra Grocery Products pleaded guilty and will pay a criminal fine of $8m and forfeit assets of $3.2m.
The criminal fine is the largest ever paid in a food safety case, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
The company signed a plea agreement admitting that it introduced Peter Pan and private label peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella into interstate commerce during the outbreak.
It added between October 2004 and February 2007, employees charged with analyzing finished product tests at the plant failed to detect Salmonella in the peanut butter, and it was unaware some of them did not know how to properly interpret test results.
Dr Al Bolles, chief technical and operations officer for ConAgra Foods, said it did not and never will knowingly ship a product that is not safe for consumers.
“ConAgra Foods took full responsibility in 2007, taking immediate steps to determine the potential causes of and solutions for the problem and acting quickly and definitively to inform and protect consumers,” he said.
“This incident brought to light previously unknown aspects of making safe peanut butter, and we have been passionate about sharing what we learned to help others join us in creating an even safer food supply.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified more than 700 cases of salmonellosis linked to the outbreak with illness onset dates beginning in August 2006.
It estimated that thousands of additional related cases went unreported but no deaths were related to the outbreak.
In February 2007, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC announced an outbreak of salmonellosis could be traced to Peter Pan and private label peanut butter produced and shipped from the company’s Sylvester peanut butter plant.
ConAgra Grocery Products voluntarily terminated production at the plant in February 2007, and recalled all peanut butter manufactured there since January 2004.
Criminal information, alleges that around December 2006, the company shipped from Georgia to Texas peanut butter that was adulterated, in that it contained Salmonella and had been prepared under conditions whereby it may have become contaminated.
The company admitted samples after the recall showed peanut butter made at the Sylvester plant on nine different dates between August 4, 2006, and January 29, 2007, was contaminated with Salmonella.
Environmental testing after the recall identified the same strain of Salmonella in at least nine locations throughout the Sylvester plant.
Michael J. Moore, US Attorney of the Middle District of Georgia, said consumers take for granted the food they feed their families is safe.
“We count on the companies who prepare and package the things we eat to be just as concerned with the product we put in our mouths as they are with the profit they put in their pocket,” he said.
“The proposed criminal fine and sentence in this case should sound the alarm to food companies across the country – we are watching, and we are expecting you to hold yourselves to a standard reflective of the trust that your consumers have placed in you. No more excuses."
Peter Pan peanut butter was reintroduced in August 2007 after ConAgra Foods took steps to improve the Sylvester, Georgia facility including knowledge about the potential for Salmonella in peanut butter.
Before the 2007 recall, food safety experts and the regulatory community believed Salmonella was unlikely to be present in finished peanut butter products. It was generally believed the low moisture content inhibited the growth of such bacteria, said the firm.
Prior to 2007, ConAgra Foods said it randomly tested finished products.
“That testing led to a positive finding of salmonella in the Sylvester facility in 2004. The 2004 product was destroyed prior to shipment,” said a statement.
“None of ConAgra Foods’ testing between 2004 and 2007 showed contamination in any finished product. Less common but more robust testing protocols were used in 2007 after the evidence of a salmonella outbreak was found.”
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.
Company employees identified several potential contributing factors, including an old peanut roaster that was not uniformly heating raw peanuts, a storm-damaged sugar silo, and a leaky roof that allowed moisture into the site and airflow that could allow potential contaminants to move around the plant.
ConAgra Foods said beginning in 2007 it invested $275m in quality assurance infrastructure upgrades to enhance food safety practices company-wide.
The proposed plea agreement and recommended sentence is not final until accepted by the US District Court but the signing was the first formal step toward completing the legal resolution.