Robert Watson, a top ingredient buyer for Kraft Foods, needed $20,000 to pay his taxes. So he called a broker for a California tomato processor that for years had been paying him bribes to get its products into Kraft’s plants.
Days later, federal agents descended on Kraft’s offices near Chicago and confronted Mr. Watson. He admitted his role in a bribery scheme that has laid bare a startling vein of corruption in the food industry.
Since the scheme also involved millions of pounds of tomato products with high levels of mold or other defects, the case has raised serious questions about how well food manufacturers safeguard the quality of their ingredients.
Over the last 14 months, Mr. Watson and three other purchasing managers, at Frito-Lay, Safeway and B&G Foods, have pleaded guilty to taking bribes. Five people connected to one of the nation’s largest tomato processors, SK Foods, have also admitted taking part in the scheme.
SK Foods shipped its customers millions of pounds of bulk tomato paste and puree that fell short of basic quality standards, with falsified documentation to mask the problems. Often that meant mold counts so high the sale should have been prohibited under federal law.