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$1.5M Fine In E. coli Outbreak

Juice manufacturer Odwalla Inc. pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a record $1.5 million fine Thursday over a 1996 E. coli outbreak that killed a Colorado girl and sickened at least 66 other people.

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

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

Odwalla, based in Half Moon Bay, pleaded guilty to 16 misdemeanor charges of selling adulterated food products and will serve five years' probation.

"No mother in this country should ever need to question the safety of the food she provides to her child," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph O. Johns said.

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

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 4,600 stores in seven states and western Canada. Since the E. coli outbreak, the company has been flash-pasteurizing apple juice to kill bacteria.

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.

"No sentence or fine will ever mitigate the terrible tragedy which lies at the heart of this case the death of little Anna Gimmestad," Johns said.

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