A decade after hundreds of Americans got sick from eating Peter Pan peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, the company that sold it paid with an embarrassing courtroom guilty plea and an agreement to pay the largest criminal fine ever in a US food safety case. The president of a ConAgra subsidiary entered a guilty plea on behalf of his company Tuesday to a single misdemeanor count of shipping adulterated food. A US District Court judge then approved a deal ConAgra reached with prosecutors to pay an $8 million fine plus $3.2 million in cash forfeitures, the AP reports. "Obviously they're able to absorb an $11 million penalty much more than a smaller company," says Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in food safety cases. "But it still sends a pretty significant message."
The plea deal resolved a long criminal investigation into a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 625 people in 47 states. It was traced to a plant in rural Georgia that produced peanut butter for ConAgra under the Peter Pan label and the Great Value brand sold at Walmart. In 2007, the company recalled all the peanut butter it had sold since 2004. By then, most of it had been eaten. ConAgra officials blamed moisture from a leaky roof and a malfunctioning sprinkler system for helping salmonella bacteria grow on raw peanuts. The company spent $275 million on upgrades and adopted new testing procedures. The judge noted that civil settlements related to the case totaled $36 million to 6,810 people. (ConAgra reps were at a food safety conference that was hit by food poisoning.)