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ConAgra Foods has agreed to pay $11.2 million to settle a federal charge that the company shipped Peter Pan peanut butter contaminated with salmonella from a plant in Georgia, sickening more than 600 people eight years ago.
Federal prosecutors filed a single misdemeanor charge of shipping adulterated food against the Omaha, Nebraska, based company along with a plea deal Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Georgia. No company executives were charged.
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.
It's the latest in a series of recent prosecutions of manufacturers linked to food poisoning that has companies "taking notice in a big way," said Bill Marler, who has represented victims of foodborne illnesses for two decades, including more than 100 sickened in the Peter Pan outbreak.
"Manufacturers are talking about the risk of misdemeanors and criminal fines and jail time," Marler said. "The fine and this plea agreement send an incredibly powerful message to food producers across the county that they have to watch their Ps and Qs."
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.
The company recalled all of its peanut butter that had been manufactured since 2004.
ConAgra Chief Operations Officer Al Bolles said the company didn't know its peanut butter was contaminated with salmonella before it was shipped.
However, the plea agreement notes that ConAgra knew peanut butter made in Georgia had twice tested positive for salmonella in 2004. Prosecutors said the company destroyed the tainted peanut butter and identified likely sources of contamination.