PEORIA, ILL. — Kerry Inc. on Feb. 3 pleaded guilty to a charge that it manufactured ready-to-eat breakfast cereal under unsanitary conditions at a facility in Gridley, Ill. The plant was linked to a 2018 outbreak of Salmonella that involved Kellogg’s Honey Smacks.

As part of its guilty plea in the federal court in Peoria, Ill., Kerry agreed to pay a criminal fine and forfeiture amount totaling $19.228 million. If accepted by the court, the $19.228 million fine and forfeiture will constitute the largest-ever criminal penalty following a criminal conviction in a food safety case, according to the US Department of Justice.

“Kerry regrets the unacceptable practices and failures that occurred at Gridley,” Kerry said. “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.

“Though the issues at Gridley were plant-specific in nature, Kerry has invested and continues to invest significantly in all aspects of its food safety and quality processes and to further embed safety as a central pillar in everything that it does.”

Justin D. Green, assistant commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, added, “Today’s announcement should serve as a reminder that food manufacturers have a critical responsibility to produce and sell food that is safe for American consumers to eat. We will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who put the public health at risk by allowing contaminated foods to enter the US marketplace.”

According to the DOJ, recently unsealed criminal information alleged Kerry manufactured Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal under unsanitary conditions and distributed it in violation of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. According to the plea deal, tests performed as part of Kerry’s environmental monitoring program found numerous instances of Salmonella in the environment at the Gridley facility.

“During the time period June 2016 to June 2018, routine environmental tests detected Salmonella in the plant approximately 81 times, including at least one positive Salmonella sample each month,” the DOJ said. “According to the plea agreement, employees at the Gridley facility routinely failed to implement corrective and preventative actions (CAPAs) to address positive Salmonella tests.

“In June 2018, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that an ongoing outbreak of salmonellosis cases in the United States could be traced to Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal produced at Kerry’s Gridley facility. In response, Kellogg’s voluntarily recalled all Honey Smacks manufactured at the plant since June 2017. The CDC eventually identified more than 130 cases of salmonellosis linked to the outbreak, with illness onset dates beginning in March 2018. The CDC did not identify any deaths related to the outbreak.”

In late October, a former quality assurance director at Kerry pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of causing the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce. The director oversaw the sanitation programs at various Kerry manufacturing plants, including the Gridley facility that manufactured Kellogg’s Honey Smacks ready-to-eat cereal for Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co.