A precedent-setting punishment has been handed down to ConAgra Grocery Products--a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods--for shipping Salmonella contaminated Peter Pan brand and Walmart’s Great Value private label peanut butter products in 2006. The company pleaded guilty and will ultimately pay out $11.2 million in fines, says the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

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

Approximately $8 million of ConAgra’s payout is for a misdemeanor violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. This is the largest fine ever for a case centering around food safety. The remaining balance--$3.2 million--represents ConAgra’s forfeiture of assets.

In 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were able to trace the Salmonella outbreak to a plant in south Georgia. After the recall was issued, samples taken at the plant on nine different dates showed evidence of Salmonella contamination--all of them identified the same strain. ConAgra admitted prior knowledge of Salmonella in the Georgia plant, attributing the contamination to old, damaged equipment and neglected facility repairs. The DOJ says these problems were not addressed until the outbreak occurred.

No deaths were linked to the outbreak, but it did spur more than 700 reported cases of illness. The CDC estimates that thousands of other cases may have gone unreported. The Georgia plant has since undergone new upgrades and enforced new safety rules.