Food safety culture means employees don’t contaminate food with brooms or forklift tires

If a company making ready-to-eat refrigerated deli-meats has a “strong culture of food safety,” would an employee shake a broom over a line of processed product?

If more inspectors are the answer to safer food, why would the inspectors need publicly reported accounts of foodborne illness and death to try harder?

And if the company and inspectors are doing lots of tests to ensure enhanced food safety, why aren’t they bragging about it instead of requiring an Access to Information request by a media outlet to discover that inspectors continue to find problems with Maple Leaf Foods infamous Bartor Road plant in Weston, Ontario.

Last night, Steve Rennie of The Canadian Press reported that Canadian federal food safety types found a troubling lack of hygiene at Maple Leaf Foods’ Toronto facility just weeks after it reopened last year from a temporary shutdown for cleaning – after 22 people were killed and 53 sickened with listeria linked to deli meat.

A Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspection report dated Oct. 10, 2008, found:

• slime on part of the meat-trimming table in the curing room;
• meat debris on two steel container bins and unidentified debris on the brine tank in the curing room;
•a moist and mouldy cardboard sheet on the base of a skid in the curing room that holds bags of salt;
•mouldy caulking on the walls of the meat-defrosting room;
•a stack of dirty, mouldy and broken skids left in the frozen packoff room during cleaning;
• food debris on knife holders, floor and meat containers in the formulation room; and,
• rust on equipment used to process mock chicken.

The Canadian Press obtained that inspection report and others under the Access to Information Act.

Another report says during visits on Oct. 20 and 21, an inspector watched as "an employee in a grey jacket lifted a floor broom over a finished food product conveyor belt during operation to sweep in between the conveyors." (No additional information as to whether the product was packaged or not).

Then on Oct. 22, the inspector saw a worker using a forklift to move ready-to-eat link sausages from the cooler to a line for packaging. The report notes the meat at the bottom part of the lift "was not protected for the potential wheel over spray or splash cross contamination."

That part is gross. And unacceptable.

On Aug. 23, 2008, ( passim ad nauseum) Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain took to the Intertubes to apologize for an expanding outbreak of listeriosis that would eventually kill 22 people. As part of his speech, McCain said that Maple Leaf has “a strong culture of food safety.”???

On Aug. 27, 2008, McCain told a press conference, ??????“As I’ve said before, Maple Leaf Foods is 23,000 people who live in a culture of food safety. We have an unwavering commitment to keep our food safe, and we have excellent systems and processes in place.

Dr. Randy Huffman, Maple Leaf’s chief food-safety officer, took to his company’s Journey (worst band ever)-inspired Journey to Food Safety Leadership blog to say today,

“The average reader must be wondering how this plant could have so many issues only a month after re-opening from causing one of the worst food safety crises in Canada.”

I’m not sure what he means by average. I consider myself dull and below-average; does that mean I won’t be able to understand what he is saying?

Huffman: Over the past 12 -14 months- since these inspections were conducted – we have invested over $5 million in upgrades at the Bartor Road plant. This includes repair of floors and wall surfaces, air handling systems, caulking, better separation of raw and cooked areas of the plant, new pallets and new slicing and packaging equipment. We have implemented over 200 new operating procedures.

Why did it take 22 deaths and 53 illnesses to make this food safety investment?

Huffman: CFIA generates these reports and so does Maple Leaf, through our own inspections across all our plants. We welcome this government scrutiny.  Canadians hold us to a higher standard, as they should.

So why did the reports have to be obtained through an Access to Information request, and why doesn’t Maple Leaf just sidestep the government and make the reports public, along with other data, as it becomes available, to build trust with the buying consumer?

Would more inspectors have helped? Maybe if they were looking. Federal food inspection union thingy Bob Kingston said,

"In a normal operation that had not been through what they had been through, that might be a common occurrence. But in this facility, it’s very surprising that that would still be there. Because you would expect it to be spotless."

The best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants will go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

And the best cold-cut companies may stop dancing around and tell pregnant women, old people and other immunocompromised folks, don’t eat this food unless it’s heated