Nearly a decade after hundreds of Americans got sick after eating Peter Pan peanut butter tainted with salmonella, ConAgra Foods appears close to settling a federal criminal case stemming from the outbreak.
After years of investigation and legal negotiations, federal prosecutors announced last year that Chicago-based ConAgra had agreed to pay $11.2 million — a sum that includes the highest fine ever in a U.S. food safety case — and plead guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of shipping adulterated food. Investigators linked peanut butter produced in Sylvester, Georgia, to 626 people sickened by salmonella before a February 2007 recall removed Peter Pan from store shelves for months.
The charge and accompanying plea deal were revealed May 20, 2015. More than 14 months later, a federal judge has yet to hold a formal plea hearing or approve the settlement.
That could soon change. U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands has ordered a teleconference with ConAgra attorneys and prosecutors on Thursday to schedule a plea date. Prosecutors told the judge in a legal filing July 29 both sides are ready to proceed after a year spent reaching out to possible victims so they could file claims for financial restitution.
"These criminal cases resonate across the world in food safety and I'm certainly an advocate of continuing to do this," said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in food safety and represented 2,000 clients in civil suits against ConAgra after the Peter Pan outbreak. "But I think a little more prompt justice is called for. Something that goes on for a decade doesn't necessarily make the most sense."
ConAgra officials blamed moisture from a leaky roof and a malfunctioning sprinkler system at the Georgia plant for helping salmonella bacteria grow on raw peanuts. The company it spent $275 million on upgrades and adopted new testing procedures. No deaths were reported from the outbreak in 2007.
Eight years later, no executives or employees were charged when the Justice Department announced its plea agreement with ConAgra. The company agreed to pay $8 million in criminal fines, which the Justice Department called the highest criminal fine ever in a food investigation, plus $3.2 million in forfeitures to the federal government.
The deal won't be final until a formal plea gets entered in court and a judge accepts the sentence agreement. It's not clear why it took so long to bring criminal charges. The Justice Department has said only that it was a complicated case involving a very large company.
ConAgra's final tab could get larger if the judge orders payment of additional cash as restitution to victims. Federal prosecutors said in a July 29 legal filing they received more than 190 responses from potential victims after a year of outreach efforts.
However, some of those people may have already received checks. Prosecutors told the judge last year ConAgra paid out $36 million in civil settlements related to the outbreak.
ConAgra spokesman Dan Hare declined further comment on the case. In a statement last year when the plea deal was announced, the company said it didn't know its peanut butter was contaminated with salmonella before it was shipped.