By EVA FEDDERLY
(CN) - ConAgra pleaded to guilty on Tuesday to selling Peter Pan peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, and got slapped with the government says is the largest-ever criminal fine in such a case.
Leo Knowles, president of ConAgra Grocery Products, he entered the misdemeanor plea before U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands in the federal court in Albany, Georgia.
Sands then approved a deal ConAgra reached with prosecutors to pay an $8 million fine plus $3.2 million in cash forfeitures.
The salmonella outbreak that began in 2006 sickened at least 625 people in 47 states. The source was eventually traced back 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.
Investigators later discovered an old peanut roaster that the company had been using at the site had not been heating peanuts well enough to eliminate the contamination.
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.
Environmental testing conducted after the recall identified the same strain of salmonella in at least nine locations throughout the Sylvester plant.
In 2007, the company recalled all the peanut butter it had sold since 2004. By then, however, most of it had been eaten.
Despite the widespread illnesses, no deaths were ever confirmed to be caused by the salmonella outbreak.
Daniel Hare, a spokesman for ConAgra, said the company is please to have finalized a resolution regarding its voluntary 2007 peanut butter recall.
"Nothing is more important to us than the safety and quality of the food we make," Hare said. "We regret the incident and how it impacted our customers and consumers. The investments we’ve made in our facilities, employees and programs over the past nine years have allowed us to make quality peanut butter ever since and we are confident that we will continue to offer Peter Pan as a safe, wholesome food in the years to come."