retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Associated Press reports that ConAgra has pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of shipping adulterated food, which included an agreement to pay $11.2 million " to resolve a decade-long criminal investigation into a nationwide salmonella outbreak blamed on tainted peanut butter ... Disease detectives traced the salmonella to a plant in rural Sylvester, Georgia, that produced peanut butter for ConAgra under the Peter Pan label and the Great Value brand sold at Wal-Mart. In 2007 the company recalled all the peanut butter it had sold since 2004."

It is said to be the largest criminal fine ever imposed in a foodborne illness-related case in the United States.

According to the story, "ConAgra said it didn’t know peanut butter was contaminated with salmonella before it was shipped. However, the plea agreement documents noted that ConAgra knew peanut butter made in Georgia had twice tested positive for salmonella in 2004. Problems weren’t all fixed by the time of the outbreak.

"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 spent $275 million on upgrades at the Georgia plant and adopted new testing procedures to screen for contaminants."

The AP reports that "Leo Knowles, president of ConAgra Grocery Products, offered no testimony as he entered the misdemeanor plea Tuesday on behalf of the Chicago-based corporation’s subsidiary."

While no deaths were reported relative to the salmonella outbreak, the story notes that it "sickened at least 625 people in 47 states."

Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety and represented some of the plaintiffs in separate civil cases, says that "the case shows corporations can be prosecuted even when there’s no evidence of intentional criminality."

“Companies are very concerned, they’re very worried,” Marler says. “They’re very interested in knowing: How can they charge us with a crime even if we don’t mean to do it? People are paying attention to that and hopefully it’s going to drive positive food behavior.”
KC's View:
I know someone in the food safety business who, while no fan of Marler's, also says that he is one of the smartest people in the country when it comes to this issue. So I take his point very seriously - companies can and should be held responsible even for food safety problems that are an accident.

Just as important, they also are going to be held responsible in the court of public opinion. Manufacturing and/or shipping contaminated food is the kind of thing that can kill a brand, no matter how much money and attention have been lavished on brand equity.