US food manufacturer ConAgra Foods has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges and pay a record AUD $14.2 million in fines
after their involvement in a 2006-2007 salmonella outbreak that caused more than 600 people to become ill.
ConAgra Grocery Products copped the federal misdemeanour charge for distributing contaminated Peter Pan and Wal-Mart’s Great Value peanut butter products that sickened people across 47 US states.
This penalty is the largest ever criminal fine imposed in a food safety case and indicates how tough legislation around food safety is becoming.
“This case is proof that the department is dedicated to using all the tools that we have two ensure that food processors and manufacturers and handlers live up to their obligations to protect the public safety,” said acting Associate Attorney General at the US Justice Department Stuart Delery.
Over the last two-plus years the Justice Department has won four criminal cases against food manufacturers or their directors, the same number that it had won during the previous quarter of a century. According to Mr Delery, there are currently more criminal food safety cases like the ConAgra Foods in the pipeline.
US Food Safety Woes
The state of food safety in the US has recently come under media fire with some describing its history as “being filled with regulatory loopholes and corporate blame-shifting” and its current state as “out-dated, sprawling, and horribly underfunded.”
However, there have also been reports of improvements in US food safety. According to Virginia defence lawyer James Neale the attitudes of food manufacturers has undergone a shift. “Everyone is paying closer attention to food safety,” he said.
Food businesses are reportedly responding to tougher rules now being enforced by the US Food and Drug Administration and many are proactively implementing new and more widespread food safety systems.
Voluntary recalls appear to be increasing in the US as well and some food manufacturers are taking preemptive steps towards damage control. Rather than waiting for authorities to impose forced product recalls, which presently involves some sticky legislation, companies are taking it upon themselves to limit consequences associated with harmful food products.
However, despite the landmark fine imposed on ConAgra Foods the food manufacturer has recently announced a new AUD $63.8 million plan to expand their Waterloo processing facility. Whether this suggests the company is minimally affected by the court’s ruling, food safety standards will no doubt be a main concern going forward.