GRIDLEY, Ill. — The manufacturer behind a 2018 salmonella outbreak faces the largest-ever criminal penalty following conviction in a food safety case.

The Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations said food and ingredient manufacturing company Kerry Inc. pleaded guilty to a charge that it manufactured breakfast cereal under insanitary conditions. The factory where this happened was linked to a 2018 salmonellosis outbreak.

In that outbreak, more than 130 people were sickened and more than 30 people were hospitalized. The outbreak was traced to Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal produced at Kerry’s Gridley, Illinois facility.

The FDA said tests performed as part of Kerry’s environmental monitoring program found numerous instances of Salmonella in the environment at the Gridley facility. From 2016-2018, Salmonella was detected approximately 81 times, at least once per month.

While Salmonella was detected, employees failed to implement corrective and preventative actions to address positive Salmonella tests.

“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,” said Assistant Commissioner Justin D. Green for the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Criminal Investigations. “We will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who put the public health at risk by allowing contaminated foods to enter the U.S. marketplace.” 

Kerry’s director of quality assurance until September 2018 previously pleaded guilty to causing the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce. Ravi Chermala oversaw the sanitation programs. He admitted to directing subordinates not to report certain information to Kellogg’s about conditions at the Gridley facility.

Kerry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of distributing adulterated cereal. The company also agreed to pay a criminal fine and forfeiture amount totaling $19.228 million. If the guilty plea is accepted by the court, the FDA says the $19.228 million fine and forfeiture will constitute the largest-ever criminal penalty following a criminal conviction in a food safety case.

The court set a March 14 sentencing date for Kerry. Chermala is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 16.