Food manufacturer Kerry Inc. has pleaded guilty to a charge that it made a popular Kellogg's breakfast cereal in “insanitary conditions,” leading to a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 100 people in 2018, the Justice Department announced Friday. 

Kerry Inc. agreed to pay a criminal fine and forfeiture amount amounting to $19.228 million, DOJ said in a news release. If the plea is accepted by the court, the fine and forfeiture “will constitute the largest-ever criminal penalty following a criminal conviction in a food safety case.”

For two years starting in June 2016, “routine environmental tests detected Salmonella in the plant approximately 81 times, including at least one positive Salmonella sample each month,” DOJ said. “According to the plea agreement, employees at the Gridley, (Illinois), facility routinely failed to implement corrective and preventative actions to address positive Salmonella tests.”

In June 2018, Kellogg’s voluntarily pulled all the Honey Smacks that had been made in the plant over the previous 12 months. More than 130 cases of salmonellosis, but no deaths, were identified.

"Kerry regrets the unacceptable practices and failures that occurred at Gridley," the Ireland-based company said in a Feb. 3 statement. "Arising from the issues, conduct and practices that occurred there, the company made the decision to permanently close the plant. The company also undertook a comprehensive review of its food safety practices, policies and oversight, with a particular focus on ensuring adherence to group standards and governance."

In a related case, the company’s director of quality assurance has previously pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of causing the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce. 

Ravi Chermala “admitted that between June 2016 and June 2018, he directed subordinates not to report certain information to Kellogg’s about conditions at the Gridley facility,” DOJ said. “In addition, Chermala admitted that he directed subordinates at the Gridley facility to alter the plant’s program for monitoring for the presence of pathogens in the plant, limiting the facility’s ability to accurately detect insanitary conditions.”

He is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 16. The sentencing date for Kerry is March 14.

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