Florida restaurant hires own food safety firm after failing April inspection

Many chain restaurants and supermarkets have their own food safety staff or hire third-party auditors to stay ahead of local inspectors, and limit the risk of making customers sick.

Wtsp TV reports that a month after a state inspector temporarily shut down the popular Ceviche restaurant in downtown St. Pete, the company says it is Cevichehiring an independent food safety inspection company to evaluate the chain’s kitchens.

Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant was shut down for just about 24 hours in early April after the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation documented 15 violations, four considered high priority. Among the problems listed on the report were temperature violations of the pork and seafood; an employee not properly washing their hands; and roach activity, with 25 live roaches written up by the inspector found crawling around the kitchen.

As a result of the bad inspection and the loss of business that followed, the restaurant cleaned house, hiring a new management team. The company also enlisted the help of an independent food safety inspection company, which will begin inspecting each Ceviche location and assigning a letter grade, which will then be posted on the front door.

$75 million Canadian tax dollars to keep cold-cuts safe

Canadian Minister of Agriculture and wannabe listeria comedian Gerry-isn’t-my-moustache-awesome Ritz announced today the government will spend $75 million Canadian taxpayer dollars to make sure Maple Leaf Foods products don’t make people barf or kill them.

"The Government of Canada’s highest priority is the safety of Canadians. We are making significant investments to hire more inspectors; update technologies and protocols; and, improve communication so that Canadians have the information they need to protect their families."

The government will:

• hire 166 new food safety staff with 70 focusing on ready-to-eat-meat facilities;

more inspectors with listeria-vision goggles won’t make a difference

• provide 24/7 availability of health risk assessment teams to improve support to food safety investigations;

the half-dozen people in my lab used to do that

• improve coordination among federal and provincial departments and agencies;

more meetings

• improve communications to vulnerable populations before and during a foodborne illness outbreak;

could do that now, have produced nothing

• improve tracking of potential foodborne illness outbreaks through a national surveillance system;

yawn, been saying that for years

• improve detection methods for Listeria monocytogenes and other hazards in food to reduce testing time and enable more rapid response during food safety investigations, as well as expanding the Government’s ability to do additional Listeria testing; and

a few researchers get money for their testing protocols

• initiate a third-party audit to make sure Canada’s food inspection system has the right resources dedicated to the right priorities.

Maybe they could hire the American Institute of Baking, from Manhattan (Kansas) the same third-party auditor geniuses who said Peanut Corporation of America was doing a bang-up job, that is until over 4,000 products were recalled.

Grocers claim audits reduce foodborne illness; no evidence provided

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association came out with a whopper that no one seems to have noticed.

In a press release intended to highlight private sector initiatives to bolster food safety – which I’m all for, they make the profit, they should shoulder the burden when they make their customers barf – GMA said,

“Ultimately, wider use of third party certification/audits will reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses.”

There is absolutely no evidence to support that statement.

In case there is some confusion, here is the statement in full:

Third party audits are an important part of America’s food safety net.  To ensure rigor and integrity in third party certification, policymakers and industry leaders should encourage the engagement of auditors employed by certification bodies accredited to international standards by recognized organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). … By increasing the number of well-qualified auditors and developing universal food safety auditing criteria, industry leaders and policymakers will ensure that auditors are competent to review a particular facility, discourage duplicative audits, reduce auditing costs, and encourage wider use of third party certification/audits throughout the food industry. Ultimately, wider use of third party certification/audits will reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses.

I’ve been hearing such statements for 15 years, and while it sounds good, I’ve seen little evidence to back such proclamations. As I’ve written before,

The third-party food safety audit scheme that processors and retailers insisted upon is no better than a financial Ponzi scheme. The vast number of facilities and suppliers means audits are required, but people have been replaced by paper. Audits, inspections, training and systems are no substitute for developing a strong food safety culture, farm-to-fork, and marketing food safety directly to consumers.

If someone barfs, they’re going to go after the biggest name they can find, whether it’s a retailer or a processor. So protect that brand. Have your own people and some institutional expertise to assess food safety risks. And avoid unsubstantiated statements.

Nestle says Peanut Corp. sucked; Kellogg’s says, how the hell could we know?

David Mackay doesn’t look like Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall fame.

But Kellogg’s CEO Mackay did an outstanding impersonation of McDonald’s, “How the hell should I know” skit (below) in front of a U.S. Congressional committee today.

“When you look at Kellogg, we have 3,000 ingredients and 1,000 suppliers, I think it’s common industry practice to use a third party.”

Not common enough for Nestle North America, which rejected Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely plant as a supplier in 2002 after it found the plant had no plans to address hazards like salmonella.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that in January 2006, Nestle also rejected the company’s Plainview, Texas, plant after finding dozens of dead mice rotting in and around the plant, dead pigeons near a peanut receiving door and live birds roosting inside the plant.

Congressional types also heard today that auditors AIB — also known as the American Institute of Baking based in Manhattan (sigh, Kansas) — were hired and paid by Peanut Corp. of America, notified the company in advance when they were coming, how to prepare for inspections and then gave its plants glowing reviews.

An inspector with AIB wrote to the manager of Peanut Corp.’s Blakely, Ga., in a December 2008 e-mail produced today by the committee that,

“You lucky guy. I am your AIB auditor. So we need to get your plant set up for any audit.”

Mackay told the committee a version of, “how the hell could we know?” and that AIB is the most commonly used inspector by food companies in America.

Not for long. And for a company to say it meets industry standards ain’t so great when 700 are sick and nine dead.

Third party food safety audits are like mail-order diplomas

Mansour, I couldn’t have said it better myself:

“The contributions of third-party audits to food safety is the same as the contribution of mail-order diploma mills to education,” said Mansour Samadpour, a Seattle consultant who has worked with companies nationwide to improve food safety.

The Ponzi scheme that is third-party food safety audits is starting to collapse. Watching Jon Stewart on the Daily Show last night, the questions he asked to a N.Y. Times reporter about the financial mess could have easily been mapped to the food safety mess (see video below).

The N.Y. Times will report in tomorrow’s editions that the American Institute of Baking auditor who gave the Peanut Corporation of America plant in Georgia a superior rating before the peanut-salmonella shitstorm, was an expert in fresh produce and was not aware that peanuts were readily susceptible to salmonella poisoning — which he was not required to test for anyway. Oh, and PCA paid for the audit which Kelloog’s then blindly accepted.

The auditor even wrote in a Jan. 20 e-mail after the salmonella outbreak became public, that, “I never thought that this bacteria would survive in the peanut butter type environment. What the heck is going on??”

That’s why there’s FSnet and barfblog and hundreds of other food safety resources out there; he never heard of Peter Pan and salmonella in 2007?

In 2007, Keystone Foods, the Pennsylvania plant that makes Veggie Booty, received an “excellent” rating from the American Institute of Baking. But the audit did not extend to ingredient suppliers, including a New Jersey company whose imported spices from China were tainted with salmonella.

“The only thing that matters is productivity,” said Robert A. LaBudde, a food safety expert who has consulted with food companies for 30 years, adding that “you only get in trouble if someone in the media traces it back to you, and that’s rare, like a meteor strike.”

Dr. LaBudde said a sausage plant hired him five years ago to determine the species of bacillus plaguing its meat. But the owner then refused to complete the testing. “I called them ‘anthrax sausages,’ and said they could be killing older people in the state, and still they wouldn’t do it,” he said, declining to name the company.

Before the salmonella outbreak, Costco had rebuffed repeated proposals by the organization to inspect all its food suppliers. “The American Institute of Baking is bakery experts,” said R. Craig Wilson, the top food safety official at Costco. “But you stick them in a peanut butter plant or in a beef plant, they are stuffed.”

Costco, Kraft Foods and Darden Restaurants are among a group of food manufacturers and other companies that use detailed plans to prevent food safety hazards. They also supplement third-party audits with their own inspections and testing of ingredients and plant surfaces for microbes.

Harmonizing food safety audits – 10 years too late

Does anyone else notice the sanitized crap that spews forth from various industry associations? I know that being in an association means striving for the lowest common denominator, but why, in 2009, 11 years after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first proposed Good Agricultural Practices for fresh produce, and hundreds of outbreaks later, is the United Fresh Retail-Foodservice Board patting itself on the back for endorsing the importance of efforts to harmonize produce food safety audits to reduce cost and duplication of efforts, while enhancing overall safety?

Maybe I’m missing something but shouldn’t this have been initiated about 10 years ago? I’m all for exposing the Ponzi scheme that is food safety audits and the burden that repeated and replicated audits place on individual growers. I fought for audits that make sense to buyers when I chaired a Canadian Horticulture Council committee on the topic back in 2002ish. They didn’t like the recommendations of my committee because they wanted money from the federal government.

How’s that working out for ya?

At some point, the folks growers elect to represent them will ask, why would I pay hundreds of dollars to attend a conference that should have happened at least 10 years ago? How did we growers get into this mess of multiple audits? Why didn’t you tell the retailers what they needed to know, instead of the retailers imposing some stupid standard on growers?

Thanks for the leadership.

Finally, a focus on the ‘fallacy’ of food safety audits

“They called me crazy at Masters and Johnson. But I’ll show them.”
The demented Dr. Bernardo from Woody Allen’s 1972 film, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).

A week ago I asked, with all the recalled products related to Samonella in peanut paste, what problems did the third-party auditors uncover and what was done about such problems?

A few weeks ago, Chapman and I wrote that,

Third-party audits are an incomplete form of verification that provide a limited view of a producer’s facilities and documentation but do not effectively reduce risk. …At some point, folks will figure out that all these outbreaks of foodborne illness – like Salmonella in peanut butter – happened at places that passed so-called independent audits.

Ten years ago, I told the Ontario greenhouse tomato growers they should have their own in-house food safety expertise to help farmers produce safe product and to market the program, with test results, to buyers and consumers.

They said I was crazy.

This morning, the N.Y. Times and USA Today are reporting that Peanut Corporation of America, the Blakely, GA firm at the epicenter of the Salmonella shit storm, had “regular visits and inspections” of its Blakely, Ga., plant in 2008, not only by federal and state regulators but by independent auditors and food safety companies that made “customary unannounced inspections.”

Kellogg’s auditor, the American Institute of Baking checked out Peanut Corp. of America’s Blakely, Ga., plant in 2007 and 2008 and gave it superior ratings both times.

"That’s frightening," says Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

Andrew Martin of the Times writes that,

Peanut Corporation of America’s statement was released as food manufacturers and public health officials tried to determine how so many inspectors missed what some have said were obvious problems at the plant, including improper sanitation procedures, live roaches, mold and slimy residue on floors and equipment.

Kris Charles, a spokeswoman for Kellogg, said,

Had Kellogg known of the problems at the plant that the Food and Drug Administration detailed recently, “we would have discontinued the relationship with P.C.A. immediately and would not have accepted any ingredients from them.”

Jim Munyon, president of AIB International, based in Manhattan, Kan., said the company would not have received a superior rating if his auditors had seen the filth the federal government described.

“It would mean that we didn’t see it on the day we were there. What goes on the rest of the time, we don’t know.”

He did say that AIB wouldn’t see internal test results unless PCA shared them. "They show us only what they want to show us," he says.

Doug Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University, said the salmonella outbreak at Peanut Corporation of America showed the “fallacy” of independent audits, which are commonly used to verify food safety, animal welfare claims and organic production methods. While the intent might be good, he said, the results are usually withheld from the public.

“Companies say they do all this testing. Great. Show us the data. They won’t. Given all the outbreaks, why should we believe them?”


Inspection and reality

I’m not a fan of focusing on food safety inspections or audits (and neither is Doug).  Sometimes it gets us plunked into the does-not-play-well-with-others category. That’s fine.  Here’s the deal: After playing hockey with government folks and talking to lots of inspectors I really like them.  I like the idea of what they’re trying to accomplish (and I’ll even try to set them up for open-net goals) but the whole concept of inspection as verification of actual food safety practices is flawed.

The theory behind inspection is that an operator (of a processing company, a restaurant, a church dinner, whatever) has a set of guidelines to follow to make and sell safe food. That part is fine. The inspector/auditor then comes in to tell them whether they are doing things right or not, and record that information. This is where it falls apart. That time the auditor/inspector spends in the facility represents an unrealistic snapshot of what actually happens.  Even if multiple inspectors show up to a facility over a period of time to gather more snapshots, what they see will likely be different. The human factor, around risk identification varies. Some inspectors really know the laws and regulations and risk is black and white. Others see the gray areas.  What’s more important to the health and safety of customers is what happens when the inspectors, or auditors, or the boss, aren’t there.

A couple of years ago, Brae Surgeoner and I interviewed restaurant operators and environmental health officers about their views regarding restaurant inspection. Almost all of the operators suggested that inspection was a good thing, and that they had a good relationship with EHOs.  And that’s when things got fun. Restaurant operators reported to us that what was being seen and recorded wasn’t representative of what was really happening with every meal.  They adjusted their personnel and their procedures so they looked good.  It’s kind of like an 8th grade house party with chaperones. Just pop and chips. But when the inspector leaves the party turns exciting. The best part of the study for us was that the inspectors reported the same thing: they felt they weren’t getting the full picture and knew everyone was on their best behavior while they were around (just like the parents).

So what’s to be done? The parents are part of it, but a block parent camped out checking that everyone’s breath doesn’t smell like peach schnapps isn’t the answer (because folks will find ways around it, like chewing lots of Juicy Fruit gum). The scare tactic of getting caught might work in the short term, but compelling operators to create a food safety culture, that will enhance their business is a better focus.

In this climate of uncertainty, it’s time for the really good peanut butter companies to step up, open their doors and show everyone how they prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness. Not their inspection or audit results, but a compelling story on how they identify and control risks. This is where the biggest return on all those food safety dollars might be seen, especially if the company can back it up and start marketing it to their customers.

PB and Salmonella: where are the third-party audits?

Watching the number of recalls continue to grow in the Salmonella in peanut butter debacle, I’m wondering why is it taking some of these companies so long to issue a recall? Today it was Jenny Craig and dozens others. My guess is these distributors have no idea what’s in the products they are hawking and it takes weeks to track down such info. If a food processor really knows its suppliers, it should take hours or minutes to figure out if the suspect ingredient is in some kid’s peanut cracker snacks or Kirstie Alley’s Jenny Craig bar (she’s not with the program anymore? Oh).

And sure, everyone’s calling for better government oversight, but what about the third-party auditors? If Peanut Corporation of America was supplying paste and industrial tubs of peanut butter to all these processors and distributers, they must have had third-party auditors through the peanut processing plant in Blakely, Georgia. What problems did the auditors uncover? And what was done about such problems?

A food safety audit does not ensure safe food

I’m not a fan of third-party food safety audits. Sure, there’s lots of good people out there, especially the ones who can coach and assist, but straight audits of food producing facilities – beginning on the farm and through to the fork – can be fraught with inadequacies.

And too often, it’s about the paycheck, not the food safety (and that comes from years of working with farmers and others and watching various auditors show up and not knowing too much).

Crain’s Detroit Business
has a story about the expanding empire of NSF International’s testing and certification services, which expects sales to increase 29 percent, to $155 million this year.

NSF CEO Kevan Lawlor says that as companies develop more global supply chains, there’s an increased risk of health and safety issues.

Which could also be an argument for developing an internal capacity to assess suppliers and internal operations.

Chapman has written that,

“Farmers and processors need to demonstrate to consumers they are aware of microbial risks and are taking serious steps to reduce that risk, day-in, day-out, even in the absence of an outbreak. Regulatory or even third party-audits are largely meaningless. Audits are snapshots, and auditors look for easily viewed visual mistakes and do little to look at what a farmer or staff member does. Just like restaurant inspections audits are not a good indicator of likelihood of an outbreak. Farmers need food safety resources 24/7 to help guide their production practices, and they need those best practices continually reinforced; an annual audit is hopelessly insufficient, especially since outbreaks keep happening from processors that are audited. Inspection scores for farms, like those for restaurants are subject to inspector inconsistencies and are not predictive of the likelihood of an outbreak (Cruz et al., 2001; Jones et al., 2004).”

Or as I’ve written and stressed for years,

“certified/verified/HACCPified/inspected/audited don’t means that much unless there is a culture of food safety present farm-to-fork, 24/7.”

How many NSF-audited farms or facilities have subsequently been involved in outbreaks of foodborne illness? How many farms or facilities audited by other third-party operators have been involved in outbreaks of foodborne illness?