Odwalla pleads guilty in fatal '96 juice contamination $1.5 million criminal fine is largest in food injury case, U.S, officials say

July 24, 1998|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

In what federal officials say is the largest criminal fine for a food injury case, Odwalla Inc. agreed yesterday to pay $1.5 million and pleaded guilty to charges that shipments of its fresh apple juice in 1996 were contaminated.

A 16-month-old girl died from an infection caused by bacteria in the juice, and at least 66 others became ill.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, the criminal conviction is the first to be obtained in such a large-scale outbreak of illness related to food -- one that sickened dozens of consumers in Washington, Colorado, California and British Columbia.

The settlement agreement ends a 14-month federal investigation that began in December 1996, after the Half Moon Bay, Calif., juice maker put on the market fresh apple juice tainted with E. coli 0157: H7. The Odwalla juice was not pasteurized or otherwise treated to remove bacteria and toxins.

The fine "sends a message that those who take risks with the nation's food supply will be vigorously prosecuted," said one FDA official.

The FDA established new regulations this month requiring that fresh, unpasteurized juices include a warning label. The label reads: "Warning: This product has not been pasteurized and, therefore, many contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems."

The wording must be on apple juice and cider labels or on signs displayed at the point of purchase by Sept. 8. Orange and other juices must comply with the new rule by Nov. 5.

Of the 21 civil lawsuits arising from the incident, all but four have been settled.

"We have to realize at this point that the global food-safety environment is changing daily. Emerging pathogens clearly represent a new threat to the public," said Odwalla spokesman Christopher Gallagher.

"We hope the visibility and size of our fine will raise consumer awareness and send the right message to the industry."

After the outbreak, Odwalla began pasteurizing its apple juice.

All but $250,000 of the $1.5 million fine will go to the U.S. Treasury. The remainder will be divided between a nonprofit advocacy organization called Safe Tables Our Priority, and the food-safety research centers of the University of Maryland and Pennsylvania State University.

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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