A Tale of Three Outbreaks: ConAgra plea deal reached

A couple of weeks ago I left my cozy bubble of Raleigh and travelled to Wayne County NC for an evening talk at the Farm-City Banquet. As I was driving I thought about Doug and Gord Surgeoner’s mentorship – both instilled the importance of engaging with real people around issues and chatting over dinners.

Research and extension activities need grounding in reality.caddyshack_be_the_ball_small

The morning of the event I wasn’t entirely sure what to talk about – so I asked Schaffner for input during a podcast recording. He suggested ‘A Tale of Two Outbreaks’ – comparing Jensen Farms to PCA. Both tragic outbreaks, both resulting in criminal charges. One was due to an egregious disregard for public health. The other seemed to be a couple of folks who meant well but didn’t quite get microbiology.

Be the bug.

For the next talk I’m gonna add in ConAgra’s Peter Pan/Salmonella outbreak as part of the story.

The Associated Press reports that ConAgra pled guilty and has agreed to pay $11.2 million in fines and other fees as a result of an outbreak a decade ago.

ConAgra admitted to a single misdemeanor count of shipping adulterated food. No individuals at the leading food conglomerate faced any charges in the 2006 outbreak, which sickened at least 625 people in 47 states.

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.

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.

“It made a lot of people sick,” federal prosecutor Graham Thorpe said Tuesday as he described ConAgra’s decision to continue shipments from the Georgia plant in late 2006, before corrective actions were completed, despite lab tests that had twice detected salmonella in samples.

“The industry has taken notice of this prosecution,” Thorpe added.

Though the Justice Department called $8 million the heftiest criminal fine ever imposed in a U.S. food safety case, it represents just one-tenth of one percent of ConAgra’s current $8 billion market capitalization. The company also will pay $3.2 million in cash forfeitures to the federal government.

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.

The judge noted that others had already received cash from ConAgra in civil settlements, which he said totaled $36 million to 6,810 people.

About 2,000 of them were represented by Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in food-safety cases. He said the case shows corporations can be prosecuted even when there’s no evidence of intentional criminality. The misdemeanor charge, he said, required only that ConAgra shipped the contaminated food.

“Companies are very concerned, they’re very worried,” Marler said. “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.”

The folks in the food and agriculture world in Wayne County seemed to pay attention.

$11.2M settlement: ConAgra finalizes deal in tainted peanut butter case

Russ Bynum of Federal News Radio reports that in November 2006, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and state health officials began investigating an outbreak of salmonella infections ultimately blamed for sickening at least 625 people in 47 states and killing nine.

peanut-butter-peter-panInvestigators traced the salmonella to jars of Peter Pan and Great Value brand peanut butter produced in Sylvester, Georgia.

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.

ConAgra launched a huge recall in February 2007, destroying and urging consumers to throw out all of its peanut butter produced since 2004.

Peter Pan peanut butter vanished from store shelves for months. Meanwhile, ConAgra spent $275 million on upgrades at the Georgia plant and adopted new testing procedures to screen peanut butter for contaminants.

Six months later, in August 2007, ConAgra announced it was ready for Peter Pan to return to supermarkets.

Today, ConAgra faces a court hearing to finalize an $11.2 million settlement — including the largest criminal fine ever in a U.S. food safety case — to resolve federal charges in a salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds who ate tainted Peter Pan peanut butter.

A federal criminal investigation followed the outbreak. More than eight years after the Peter Pan recall, in May 2015, the Justice Department announced charges and a pre-arranged plea deal with ConAgra.

The agreement called for ConAgra Grocery Products Company, a ConAgra subsidiary, to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of shipping adulterated food. No charges were brought against executives of ConAgra, which was based in Omaha, Nebraska, at the time but has since moved its headquarters to Chicago.

ConAgra issued a statement saying the company didn’t know its peanut butter was contaminated with salmonella before it was shipped. However, the plea agreement documents note 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, but ConAgra had not finished fixing those problems by the time of the 2007 outbreak.

An outbreak can be the horrible gift that keeps on giving

For victims, reminders of an outbreak may be daily and can include long term sequelae from foodborne pathogens like Salmonella.

Folks on the industry talk crisis, recall, restoration and recovery. The events aren’t usually managed quickly. It can take years.jellyofthemonth

According to AP, almost a decade ago ConAgra’s Peter Pan peanut butter was linked to over 600 illnesses; and the fallout continues.

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.”

Largest food safety fine ever in US: ConAgra pleads guilty in 2006 Salmonella-in-peanut butter case that sickened thousands

By March 2007, Salmonella in Peter Pan peanut butter – owned by ConAgra — had sickened 628 people in 47 states and caused the company to shut down its Sylvester, Georgia, manufacturing facility; the contamination was likely due to a leaky roof and faulty sprinklers.

powell.talk.nude.conagra copyIn 2008, I was invited by ConAgra to speak about food safety stuff, but was in Wellington, New Zealand, and the hobbits weren’t running fast enough so the Internet was slow, so just did audio.

Naked, in bed (right, exactly as shown).

Today it was announced that ConAgra Grocery Products will plead guilty and pay $11.2 million in fines for shipping contaminated peanut butter that was linked to a Salmonella poisoning outbreak in 2006, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

In their agreement, ConAgra Grocery, a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods, admitted that its Peter Pan and private label peanut butter products were contaminated with Salmonella, leading to more than 700 cases identified nationally until 2007 by federal health officials.

While no deaths related to the outbreak were reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that “thousands” of other related cases went unreported.

ConAgra will pay a criminal fine of $8 million for a misdemeanor violation of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act — the largest fine ever in a food safety case — and forfeit assets of $3.2 million.

“No company can let down its guard when it comes to these kinds of microbiological contaminants,” said DOJ principal deputy assistant attorney general Benjamin Mizer, in a statement. “Salmonellosis is a serious condition, and a food like peanut butter can deliver it straight to children and other vulnerable populations.”

Rolling_Stones_1971In February 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CDC determined that the salmonellosis outbreak could be traced to ConAgra’s products that were made and shipped from its plant in Sylvester, Ga., starting December 2006.

ConAgra ended production at the plant following the announcement and recalled all peanut butter manufactured there since January 2004. “The company admitted in the plea agreement that samples obtained after the recall showed that peanut butter made at the Sylvester plant on nine different dates between Aug. 4, 2006, and Jan. 29, 2007, was contaminated with salmonella,” the Justice Department said.

Testing conducted after the recall also identified the same strain of salmonella in at least nine locations throughout the Sylvester plant, it said.

ConAgra also admitted that it had been aware of some risk of salmonella contamination in peanut butter given the damaged equipment at the plant. In 2004, ConAgra tested the Sylvester plant and found products that were contaminated with salmonella. It identified several possible causes, including an old peanut roaster, a storm-damaged sugar silo, and a leaky roof that allowed moisture into the plant.

“The company did not fully correct these conditions until” the outbreak, the Justice Department said.

The company’s version goes like this:

Leading food safety practices, including robust testing, new equipment and extensive training, have helped ensure that the plant has made safe and wholesome peanut butter on a daily basis. ConAgra Foods has been recognized as a leader in food safety since that time. The company and its 175 dedicated employees in Sylvester, GA., who make Peter Pan peanut butter products every day, are deeply committed to food safety.

“We did not, and never will, knowingly ship a product that is not safe for consumers. We’ve invested heavily in leading-edge food safety technology and practices over the past eight years, and we are thankful for all of the people who recognize that and are loyal Peter Pan fans,” said Dr. Al Bolles, chief technical and operations officer for ConAgra Foods. “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. 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. We will remain vigilant to maintain the trust we’ve worked so hard to earn from our consumers.”

Sticky fingers?

 

The longterm business impacts of an outbreak

Beyond the tragic longterm effects on health for the victims of an outbreak, issues associated with foodborne illness incidents can taint a business for a long time. Jack-in-the-box, Odwalla, Castleberry’s and others may have changed their processes and practices but the stigma from an outbreak can last years. Beyond public perception, internal and external investigations into the causes can continue to impact business for years. And lead to revenue losses, expensive changes and criminal action.images

On national peanut butter and jelly day, the Atlanta Business Chronicle, uh, chronicles Conagra’s responses to a 2007 Salmonella outbreak affecting over 280 individuals associated with the Peter Pan and Great Value brands.

Seven years after a recall of peanut butter made at a Georgia plant, federal investigations are still hanging over the head of ConAgra Foods Inc.

Following the recall, investigators searched the plant. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Georgia and the Consumer Protection Branch of the Department of Justice launched a formal investigation in 2011.

ConAgra (NYSE: CAG) reported today that it spent a total of $25 million in 2012 and 2013 in connection with the investigations.

“We have been and continue to be engaged in ongoing discussions with the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Department of Justice in regard to the investigation,” ConAgra reported today. “We are pursuing a negotiated resolution, which we believe will likely involve a misdemeanor criminal disposition under the Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act.”

Florida woman says canned ravioli contained spider?

Victoria Jean Harrah sat down around noon Wednesday to eat a freshly grilled ham and cheese sandwich with her fiance when she decided to warm up a plate of her favorite canned ravioli.

But instead of saucy goodness, the 48-year-old Mims, Fla., woman said she got a crunchy mouthful of what she described as a hairy-legged spider tucked into a pocket of pasta.

"I spit it up…I screamed, rinsed my mouth out and I must have brushed my teeth till my teeth hurt," said Harrah, who claims to have found the surprise in a can of Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli.

Harrah is hoping a representative of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will evaluate the remnants of the meal to determine just what was stuffed in with the meat-filled pasta swimming in tomato sauce.

Harrah also called ConAgra, the food conglomerate that produces name-brand goods including kosher hot dogs and popcorn, to report chomping on the unappetizing find.

"They told me it was a figment of my imagination, the woman on the phone said they have people who call all the time and that it was just a piece of meat," Harrah said.

"But this was a spider. You can see its legs. It’s in the middle of the noodle, it’s got eyeballs and big hairy legs. Now I love Chef Boyardee, I thought it was the best ever. I would buy 20 cans a week for 30 years. But will I eat it again? Not in this lifetime."

ConAgra officials say the company is reviewing the woman’s claims.

 

Food safety culture is more than just training

Most of the stuff I’ve worked on in the past ten years has something to do with evaluating and supporting food safety culture. bites, barfblog, infosheets and reality-based research are all about providing information to make risk-based decisions and assessing where there might be gaps.
The ultimate goal is less sick people.

But as one of my mentors Gord Surgeoner once told me, businesses wont pay attention to food safety unless it generates revenue or some how keeps them from losing money. Making people sick is bad business. So is spending money on training programs or handwashing signs if there isn’t a measurable return on investment.

I’ve been to lots of talks where smart food safety folks were supposed to present about their food safety culture, but really have only shared their training program requirements. And while maybe they are measuring it, no one talks about their return on investment.

In a paper published in 2011,  Doug, Casey Jacob and I wrote:

Maintaining a food safety culture means that operators and staff know the risks associated with the products or meals they produce, know why managing the risks is important, and effectively manage those risks in a demonstrable way. In an organization with a good food safety culture, individuals are expected to enact practices that represent the shared value system and point out where others may fail.
Training is part of it. So is having some sort of verification that staff and supervisors are actually reducing risks. It’s pretty easy to point to a poor food safety culture – it’s more difficult to define a good one. But one of the indicators is the "dude wash your hands factor" – pointing out where others fail and modeling the right practice.

Conagra, one of the biggest food companies in North America, and source of a few foodborne illness outbreaks in the past few years, is trying to step up their internal assessment of food safety culture, and sharing it publicly.

In the January 2012 issue of Food Technology, the ConAgra food safety crew shared their approach to assessing their food safety culture (at least the self reported values part) and how they used the results to change the way they train and support good practices in their plants.

Administering a survey to all plant personnel—line workers as well as supervisors and management—is the first step in the assessment process. Having all employees take part in the survey is important, as it sets the stage for communicating that everyone contributes to the plant’s food safety culture and that food safety is everyone’s responsibility. The act itself of taking the survey increases awareness of the concept of food safety culture, gets people talking about food safety culture, and ultimately drives toward improvements.

Their main findings support the approach we use with much of our work – tell people about consequences (both positive and negative),  help staff learn from past mistakes and appreciate a community with shared values:

1. Employee desire
• Both employees and leaders want food safety held up as an equal to personal safety, with both groups talking about the need to inspire employees around food safety.
• Participants said they specifically wanted to know more about lessons learned from food safety issues and incidents and how they would prevent future problems.
2. Teamwork
• Employees want to be able to rely on one another.
• Employees felt that there needs to be a good balance of supervisor responsibility and their own responsibility, but felt that at the end of the day, they are personally accountable.
3. Recognition
• Employees were proud of the plant’s food safety performance and understood that it deserved recognition. Recognition breeds motivation.
• Suggestions were made to reinstitute food safety and recognition committees to help drive engagement from the floor.

Great stuff, especially the recognition that surveys and focus groups are just the start (people tend to lie), I hope Conagra continues on this path, publishes this stuff in a peer-reviewed journal, shares some of their further assessments and market it to their customers
It would also be nice for others to know what ConAgra’s return on investment for food safety culture is.


 

Tongue-testing dangerous: microwaves that heat unevenly can pose food safety problems

I expect companies like ConAgra and government agencies like the department of agriculture to blame consumers when their 50 cent pot pies make hundreds of people barf – just follow the instructions.

I don’t expect Consumer Reports to blame the consumer when microwave cooking makes people sick. But I have low expectations, especially of so-called consumer groups.

Consumer Reports latest tests of microwaves found fewer models that aced our evenness test.

When food isn’t cooked evenly to an internal temperature that kills harmful bacteria that might be present, illness can result, according to the USDA. So using a microwave that delivers even heating is important.

You’ll need to cook food longer if your microwave’s wattage is lower than the cooking instructions requires. Our Ratings indicate wattage, and you’ll find it on the serial number plate on the back of the microwave, inside the microwave door, or in the owner’s manual.

The USDA also recommends using a food thermometer to test food in several spots, but the survey found most people don’t, and nearly a third said nothing would change their mind. Using a food thermometer is a good idea, but at the very least, make sure there are no cold spots in your food.

How? With your tongue? Frozen foods that are going to be cooked in the microwave should contain pre-cooked ingredients.

Deceit and deception: just another day for PR flunkies and their overlords

 “I’m sorry you feel that way” is the super-supreme of backhanded apologies.

“I’m having an affair with a younger, hotter, smarter person and want a divorce.”
“That’s really hurtful.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“I’ve appreciated working with you for 20 years but am going to join a startup and cash in on all our corporate secrets because you have bad breath.”
“That’s really ungrateful.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“I’d like to invite you, as a valued food blogger, to Sotto Terra, an intimate and underground Italian restaurant in New York City, where you will enjoy a delicious four-course meal hosted by George Duran, the chef who hosts the Ultimate Cake Off on TLC and learn about food trends from a food industry analyst, Phil Lempert. But really we’re going to serve Three Meat and Four Cheese Lasagna and Razzleberry Pie, by Marie Callender’s, a frozen line from ConAgra Foods, and record your reaction on hidden camera.”
“That’s really deceitful.”
“(We) understand that there were people who were disappointed and we’re sorry — we apologize that they felt that way.”

The last one actually happened.

The backhanded apology came from PR-type Jackie Burton at the Ketchum public relations unit of the Omnicom Group, hired by ConAgra to orchestrate the stunt.

As usual, ConAgra is behind the times. The bloggers were having none of it and took to the Intertubes to vent their gastronomic rage.

As reported in the N.Y. Times:

“Our entire meal was a SHAM!” wrote Suzanne Chan, founder of Mom Confessionals, in a blog post after the event. “We were unwilling participants in a bait-and-switch for Marie Callender’s new frozen three cheese lasagna and there were cameras watching our reactions.”

On FoodMayhem.com, a blog by Lon Binder and Jessica Lee Binder, Mr. Binder wrote that during a discussion led by Mr. Lempert before the meal, Mr. Binder spoke against artificial ingredients while Ms. Binder mentioned being allergic to food coloring. When the lasagna arrived, Ms. Binder was served a zucchini dish, while Mr. Binder was served lasagna.

“We discussed with the group the sad state of chemical-filled foods,” wrote Mr. Binder. “And yet, you still fed me the exact thing I said I did not want to eat.” (Among the ingredients in the lasagna: sodium nitrate, BHA, BHT, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate.)

On the evening she attended, Cindy Zhou wrote on her blog, Chubby Chinese Girl, that during the pre-meal discussion, she “pointed out that the reason I ate organic, fresh and good food was because my calories are very precious to me, so I want to use them wisely. … Yet they were serving us a frozen meal, loaded with sodium.” (An 8-ounce serving of the lasagna contains 860 milligrams of sodium, 36 percent of the recommended daily allowance.) I’m NOT their target consumer and they were totally off by thinking I would buy or promote their highly processed frozen foods after tricking me to taste it.”

Four years ago next month, ConAgra Banquet pot pies sickened at least 272 people in 35 states with salmonella. When the outbreak was initially announced, Con Agra said, don’t worry, just follow the instructions and everything will be fine.

Those instructions sucked. And didn’t work, as shown in my kitchen-experiment at the time. So ConAgra finally decided to recall the suspect pies, changed a few things, and everyone went back to sleep.

In June 2010 a variety of ConAgra’s Marie Callender frozen food thingies sickened at least 29 people in 14 states with salmonella.

And now this month, the entire PR apparatus of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the International Food Information Council, and the other usual suspects is using its bully pulpit of Consumer Food Safety Education month to tell consumers that when it comes to frozen meals, ‘cook it safe.’

The press materials are akin to a users manual for a $0.50 pot pie. And if someone gets sick, it’s their own fault for not knowing how to properly measure the wattage of their microwave using a measuring cup, water and ice (did MacGyver write the instructions?)

Officially, USDA gave up blaming consumers for cooking mishaps with ground beef back in 1994 as E. coli O157:H7 burst onto the scene. Not so with frozen thingies.

“Frozen or refrigerated convenience foods are popular items in many Americans’ homes, but there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to cooking these foods,” said FSIS Administrator Al Almanza. “Some of them can be microwaved, but others can’t. The ‘Cook It Safe’ campaign is designed to heighten awareness of this problem and correct misconceptions, putting an end to needless, preventable illnesses.”

If consumers get sick and have grudges about complicated instructions, the lack of clear differentiation between raw, frozen meals and cooked, frozen meals, and questions about why raw hazardous ingredients are in frozen meals, no worries: everyone will be really sorry you feel that way.

Will it be salmonella-free? ConAgra Foods launches new line of peanut butter spreads

By March 2007, salmonella in Peter Pan peanut butter had sickened 628 people in 47 states and caused the company to shut down its Sylvester, Georgia, manufacturing facility; the contamination was likely due to a leaky roof and faulty sprinklers.

Last week, ConAgra Foods announced the launch of a new line of natural peanut butter spreads from its Peter Pan brand.

The three no-stir varieties are made with 100% natural ingredients and contain no high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, trans fat or preservatives.

Hopefully, or scientifically, they won’t contain any salmonella.