- Food and ingredients company Kerry agreed to a fine of $19.2 million after pleading guilty to charges associated with manufacturing cereal in unsanitary conditions at its former Gridley, Illinois plant. The U.S. Justice Department said this is the largest financial penalty associated with a criminal conviction in a food safety case.
- Ravi Kumar Chermala, Kerry’s former director of quality assurance, pleaded guilty to three related misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce last October. In his position, Chermala was responsible for the sanitation at the Gridley, Illinois cereal plant and others.
- The Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal made at that plant in 2018 resulted in a salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 135 people in 36 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The amount of the fine and the criminal charges surrounding show that the FDA is taking food safety — and the apparent willful disregard for it — seriously.
While the outbreak occurred close to five years ago, the case is only now coming to light. Charges against Chermala were filed under seal in August, and announced to the public only when he pleaded guilty in October. The charges against Kerry were filed under seal in December and disclosed when the company took a plea agreement earlier this month.
Not much has been out in the open about the reasons behind the outbreak — and many court records are still sealed — but what is public paints a picture of attempts to cover up clear threats to safety. According to a June 2018 warning letter from FDA, between Sept. 29, 2016 and May 16, 2018, Kerry’s internal tests showed 81 separate positive salmonella samples, including in the cereal production area. Thirty-two follow-up tests done also tested positive for salmonella.
Kerry should have immediately taken care of the contamination, as well as upgraded its hazard analysis plans to specifically address salmonella contamination in cereal, the FDA said in the letter. That did not occur.
According to a Justice Department press release about Chermala’s guilty plea, Chermala admitted to directing his subordinates to change the facility’s pathogen monitoring program, limiting the ability to accurately detect problems. He also directed employees under him to keep information about the facility’s condition from Kellogg.
It’s unclear if the issues at the plant were resolved. In December 2018, Kerry abruptly chose to shut it down. Employees were told on a Tuesday that the plant would be closed as of the next day, according to local news reports. It had about 115 employees.
These criminal charges and high fine for both Kerry and the former senior-level employee deemed responsible for the incident show how violations of the preventive aspects of the Food Safety Modernization Act are dealt with and punished. FSMA, signed into law in 2011, requires food producers, manufacturers and importers to add planning and control policies in order to prevent food safety incidents. It lays down the process for dealing with violations, as well as what the punishments can be.
While neither Kerry nor Chermala have been sentenced yet, the punishments will show how seriously the federal government takes FSMA violations. The $19.2 million fine for Kerry is sizable, and will be considered at the company’s sentencing hearing scheduled for March 14. Chermala is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 16.