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Sara Lee Pleads Guilty in Listeria Outbreak - (FoodNews)/PassionateAboutFood.com - June 26, 2001

June 26, 2001

Sara Lee Corp. pleaded guilty Friday to a federal criminal charge stemming from the 1998 contamination of hot dogs and deli meats produced at its Bil Mar Foods plant, and agreed to a $1.2 million civil settlement.

The contamination led to the recall of 15 million pounds of meat produced at the Zeeland, Mich., plant suspected of being contaminated with listeria monocytogenes. The recall, which cost Sara Lee $76 million, was initiated after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began investigating a number of suspected cases of listeriosis.

Sara Lee pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to a misdemeanor charge of producing and distributing adulterated meat and poultry in violation of the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

Federal investigators acknowledged they uncovered no evidence Bil Mar knowingly produced contaminated products and that upon learning of the possible contamination, Sara Lee 'took immediate and comprehensive steps to recall all food products' that might have been affected.

Sara Lee agreed to pay a $200,000 criminal fine and as a condition of its probation to fund $3 million in food safety research at Michigan State University. Because some of the tainted meat was sold to the Department of Defense, a civil action also was brought. In settlement of the civil action, Sara Lee agreed to pay the Department of Defense $915,000 plus the cost of the government investigation.

U.S. Attorney Phillip J. Green said there was no question of whether to charge Sara Lee with a misdemeanor or a felony.

'After a thorough investigation we uncovered no evidence to indicate that Sara Lee or Bil Mar knowingly or intentionally distributed adulterated food,' Phillip said. 'This was a strict liability case. It was not a situation where we plea bargained.'

'We are pleased that this situation is now behind us,' Sara Lee President and Chief Executive Officer Steve McMillan.

At least 15 people died and six women suffered miscarriages as a result of the listeriosis outbreak. At least 80 more people were seriously sickened. Most of the victims were elderly and many suffered other medical problems, including diabetes, kidney disease or lupus.

An investigation by the Detroit Free Press discovered federal inspectors had criticized the sanitation practices at Bil Mar almost weekly in the months before the outbreak. In the six months following the recall, meat sales dropped about $200 million, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Sara Lee still faces a class-action suit stemming from the outbreak. Chicago attorney Ken Moll said settlement proposals are set to go out to some 4,000 claimants next month. Depending on the severity of the illness, most claimants will receive $250 to $50,000, plus medical expenses.

Lawsuits totaling $1.6 million filed on behalf of families of five of those who died also are pending.

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