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$1.5 M fine in tainted juice case

A company spokesman told CNN Odwalla did not know unpasteurized apple juice could harbor E. coli bacteria  

One killed, dozens sickened by E. coli; Odwalla pleads guilty

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SACRAMENTO, California (CNN) -- Odwalla Inc., the company whose E. coli-tainted apple juice killed a baby girl and sickened dozens of others in 1996, pleaded guilty to criminal charges and will pay a $1.5 million fine.

It is the first criminal conviction in a large-scale outbreak caused by contaminated food, federal officials said Thursday. It is also the largest criminal fine in a food injury case in Food and Drug Administration history.

The outbreak was blamed on contaminated unpasteurized apple juice made at an Odwalla plant in Dinuba, California, near Fresno.

The contaminated juice was blamed for the death of 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad  

The juice was blamed for the death of 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad of Denver as well as 66 illnesses in California, Washington, Colorado and Canada. Fourteen children developed life-threatening kidney ailments.

In a plea bargain with the government, Odwalla pleaded guilty to 16 misdemeanor charges of selling adulterated food products and will serve five years' probation.

'Painful experience'

An Odwalla spokesman told CNN the company, based in Half Moon Bay, California, did not know unpasteurized apple juice could harbor E coli bacteria. Since the outbreak, Odwalla has been pasteurizing apple juice to kill bacteria.

"Our sympathies remain forever extended to the individuals and families who were affected by this incident," the company said in a statement.

Odwalla Chief Executive Officer Stephen Williamson said he was pleased with the outcome of an otherwise "painful experience," calling it a good example of cooperation among government officials, private business and consumer groups. ( 306 K/26 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

The company has paid the medical expenses of those affected by the tainted juice, and 17 of 21 civil suits related to the outbreak have been settled.

Juice producers face regulatory squeeze

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns said he hoped the case would encourage other companies to maintain high standards for food preparation. "We're not just interested in Odwalla's conduct. We're interested in preventing this from ever happening again."

Contamination source never found

An investigation could not pinpoint the source of the bacteria, which is spread through fecal contamination. Likely sources include unsanitary orchard workers or employees, or even apples that had fallen on the ground, FDA officials said.

An internal Odwalla memo, contents of which were leaked to The New York Times, may have helped prompt the plea bargain, and the settlements estimated at upward of $12 million.

The handwritten note came from a quality inspector and told how her attempts to reject a load of rotten apples were overruled by a company official.

Earlier this month, the FDA issued rules requiring warning labels on vegetable and fruit juices that have not been processed to eliminate bacteria.

Odwalla products are sold in about 5,000 stores in 15 states and western Canada.

A $250,000 portion of the fine will be divided between an advocacy group, Safe Tables Our Priority, and food safety research centers at the University of Maryland and Pennsylvania State University, to increase research and consumer awareness of the causes of food-borne disease.

Correspondent Don Knapp and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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