Food service workers in Mass. will be retrained after bogus certificates surface

Keith Eddings of the Eagle-Tribune writes the U.S. National Restaurant Association on Friday agreed to train without charge about 170 employees at bodegas, restaurants and other food-service establishments in the city who received certificates in safe food handling from a consultant accused of selling bogus documents for as much as $450.

jesus_nobody_fucksThe association also said it suspended the consultant, Jorge De Jesus, whom it had hired to teach the courses and administer the exams needed to receive a so-called ServSafe certificate from the association.

De Jesus also was suspended with pay from his $51,602-a-year job as a code inspector for the city’s Inspectional Services department after a bogus ServSafe certificate found at Noelia Market on Lawrence Street was traced to him. The city shut the bodega last week. 

The certificates are issued by the association, not the city, but the city requires them from merchants seeking the common victualler license needed to sell food. That made it a conflict of interest for De Jesus to issue even valid certificates in Lawrence, Assistant City Attorney Brian Corrigan said.

Olympic-sized food safety issues for Rio

Lina Tran of Eater writes that Rio de Janeiro 2016 kicks off in less than three months, and everyone knows feeding Olympic athletes is one of the most exciting aspects of the Games.

chapman.auditRio has constructed a kitchen the size of a football field (American football, that is) and a dining room two times that, the Associated Press reports. The kitchen will prepare 60,000 meals each day for over 18,000 athletes, coaches, and staff.

The dining hall will house five all-you-can-eat buffets accommodating different tastes and diets: Brazilian, Asian, International, Pasta and Pizza, Halal and Kosher. Diners have a spectrum of international breakfast options, including congee, miso soup, and natto.

Food safety is a crucial strategy for an operation of this size, and steroids in animal meat, meant to improve lean growth, can cause false positives in drug testing of athletes. “To assure that our ingredients are free of steroids and other kinds of chemicals, we are making sure our suppliers have all the certificates that are demanded by our national food and drug agency,” says Marcello Corderio, Rio’s director of food and beverages.

Certificates? Paperwork? Really? Do better. You can’t test your way to safe food, but any program requires some sort of verification, whether it’s testing or a pair of eyes on the production facility. Not just paperwork.

How about disclosure? Wisconsin restaurants support new food safety standards

Ed Lump, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, writes in the LaCrosse Tribune that to say food safety in restaurants and other food outlets is important is an understatement. However, the public doesn’t hear much about it unless there is an actual outbreak of foodborne illness. Occasionally, awareness is heightened by publication in local newspapers or TV segments about restaurant inspection reports.

restaurant.inspectionOn Jan. 1, we took another big step forward as a new law (strengthening a 20-year-old existing law) went into effect. The original law requires that every restaurant in Wisconsin, regardless of size, have at least one manager on staff certified in food safety (Certified Food Protection Manager). To become certified, the manager has to pass a state approved exam.

The existing law also requires that a Certified Food Protection Manager be recertified every five years. However, recertification was accomplished by class time — no exam. Now an exam is required for both original certification and recertification. WRA feels this is the best way to ensure the manager demonstrates knowledge and is up-to-date on current science and food codes. By the way, the city of Milwaukee has required this since 2008, which our association also supported.

This is why food safety knowledge accountability is critical. WRA supported this stricter re-certification process because it helps to protect customers, restaurants and our industry from dangerous and costly outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Lump doesn’t say whether that certified manager has to be present or at home.

That’s where disclosure can play a role.

Sari Lesk of Stevens Point Journal Media, home of Portage county, Wisconsin, writes that Portage County diners can now go online, before they go out, to find out how a local restaurant performed in its most recent health inspection.

Public access to the inspection reports, contained on a portal called Healthspace, went live Monday. A link to the portal is available on the county’s home page. inspections date back to July 2013 and will, over time, display the results for three years’ worth of data. The information is organized alphabetically by restaurant name.

Users can tell if a restaurant’s health violations fall under one of three categories:

  • Priority: Violations such as improper cooking, reheating, cooling, or handwashing. These violations are known to cause foodborne illnesses. Uncorrected priority observations usually result in a reinspection.
  • Priority foundation:Violations such as no soap or single-use toweling available for handwashing, failure of the person in charge to properly train employees, not maintaining required documentation, labeling or records. These observations support or enable a priority violation and may contribute to a foodborne illness. Priority foundation observations will be reexamined during the next routine inspection.
  • Core:Violations that usually relate to general sanitation, operational controls, sanitation standard operating procedures, facilities or structures, equipment design, or general maintenance. Core observations will be reexamined during the next routine inspection.

The website also lists recommendations for correcting the violations, and notes whether they were corrected in a follow-up inspection.

Public health environmental specialist Lindsay Benaszeski cautions that the information should be looked at as a snapshot in time, but that the business owners she’s told about the online access have largely been receptive to the idea, adding, “It’s kind of a way to showcase their facility if they’re doing a great job,” she said.

Some restaurant owners disagree, however. Jim Billings, president of the Portage County Tavern League and owner of Final Score, said he thinks the information could be easily misconstrued by someone who does not work in the restaurant business.

Organic don’t mean much, except profits for retailers

The $35 billion U.S. organic-food industry has nearly tripled in size in the past decade, challenging the Agriculture Department’s ability to monitor the more than 25,000 farms and other organizations that sell organic crops and livestock.

organic-manure1There are currently 81 accredited “certifying agents,” or groups that stamp food as organic in the U.S. But of the 37 that had a complete review this year, 23 were cited for failing to correctly enforce certification requirements on farms in audits, according to an internal Agriculture Department report. The 23 firms didn’t properly conduct onsite inspections or correctly review applications for organic certification, among other things, the report said.

A separate Wall Street Journal investigation of USDA inspection records since 2005 found that 38 of the 81 certifying agents failed on at least one occasion to uphold basic Agriculture Department standards.

In that time, 40% of these 81 certifiers have been flagged by the USDA for conducting incomplete inspections; 16% of certifiers failed to cite organic farms’ potential use of banned pesticides and antibiotics; and 5% failed to prevent potential commingling of organic and nonorganic products, according to the Journal investigation.


Ex-Chicago contractor took bribes for food safety certifications, jailed for over 2 years

WLS reports a woman who formerly worked as food inspector for the city of Chicago was sentenced to more than two years in prison Wednesday for taking bribes to obtain food safety certificates for people who had not taken required courses or passed tests.

U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber sentenced Mary Anne Koll to 2 1/2 years in federal prison on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. She will begin her sentence on Dec. 31.

The 69-year-old Burr Ridge resident was convicted last year of conspiracy to commit bribery for accepting at least $96,930 in return for fraudulently arranging to provide bogus certificates for at least 531 people, federal prosecutors charged.

Koll, an independent contractor working as a food inspector for the Chicago Public Health Department, taught state-mandated food sanitation courses and administered exams to people seeking certification between 1995 and 2007, the Dept. of Justice said. The course required 15 hours of training on food safety and sanitation, and state law required all food service establishments to have at least one certified manager on site.

Between June 2004 and June 2007, Koll fraudulently obtained certificates for people who had not attended the course or passed the exam, prosecutors said. Koll, who has since retired, got the certificates by completing the forms herself and submitting them to the IDPH.

Band of Mexican produce growers wants to market food safety at retail … soon

I’m still waiting for some brave food producer to start marketing food safety at retail because I don’t care if lettuce and spinach are local, natural, sustainable, and was produced without harming any animals: I do care if it has E. coli and I want to know what a brand is doing about it. At the grocery store. Where I decide what brand to buy.

A group of Mexican produce producers is, according to The Packer, planning to invest in the issue with the Eleven Rivers Growers food safety and quality assurance label.

And while starting with the supply chain, the group wants the labels at retail by 2013.

“We believe that we will have 22 or 23 producers (under the label),” said Fernando Mariscal, cooperative representative. “Most important, we are expecting to have production around 40 million 25-pound boxes for this winter season.

"We’ll start the process with weekly inspections that are not going to be announced,” Mariscal said.

The unannounced part is good, but Eleven Rivers is going to rely on third-party auditors like Primus Labs or Scientific Certification Systems, or anyone who can meet the standards, which could be bad. Better to have some in-house expertise to make use of the audits are really create a strong food safety culture, one strong enough and backed up with date to support safety claims at retail.

Grower-shippers pay about five cents a box for the labels. Those who pass the inspections will add Eleven Rivers Growers to their existing labels. Any who fail lose the label until the causes are addressed.

For now, the label will only go as far as the pallet level — basically, a 4-inch tape around pallets.

“It’s our aim to reach the supply chain this year,” Mariscal said.

“Next year we hope to reach the final consumer, label each box and be present at the supermarkets.”

Because of that limit, the cooperative will push to keep pallet quantities together.

“We’re trying to show that pallet has been carefully monitored from crop to distribution, that it’s been well-handled all the way. Because some of the shipments will go to other suppliers, like terminal markets or brokers, we have to be sure it remains within its quality conditions.”

Commodities include a mix of tomatoes, bell peppers, chilies, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans and squash. Plans call for adding more crops over time.

Among the participating members in the nonprofit cooperative are Del Campo y Asociados; Tricar Sales; Triple H; Grupo GR; De La Costa; CAADES Sinaloa; Agroindustrias Tombell; Agricola de Gala; Agricola EPSA; and Agroexportadora del Noreste.

29 dead, 133 sick linked to whole cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, Colorado; state pushes for stronger oversight

As the number of illnesses and deaths linked to Colorado cantaloupe continues to climb, the state said it will promote stronger oversight of its cantaloupe industry helping farmers create a certified label potentially backed by safety training, auditing and lab testing for pathogens.

State Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar told the Denver Post the measures — now under discussion with farmers and agriculture experts — could help right the melon business after 28 deaths and one miscarriage from Jensen Farms cantaloupes.

Salazar acknowledged, though, that the state does not have new resources to fund such a certification program. A new system would rely on budget shifts or payments from the farms themselves, as other industries currently do.

• A "Colorado Proud" label, or even one specific to the Rocky Ford area, could be used by farmers who meet certain criteria.

• Standards to earn the label would include undergoing safety training created by Colorado State University, and proof of outside audits of how those safety practices are carried out.

• CSU extension facilities in southeastern Colorado are capable of lab testing; depending on the response time on results, farms could seek a pathogen-free lab test before harvest and possibly additional lab tests during the short cantaloupe shipping season.

Third-party audits: missing the forest for the trees

Irwin Pronk of HACCP By Design, writes in this contributed piece:

Conducting food safety audits is hard work. It is a very difficult task requiring technical background, industry experience and people skills (especially in stressful environments).

There are a number of problems with third-party audits these days, and each in its own way undermines the effectiveness of audits as food safety tools.

One of the main dangers is that HACCP certifications can become mere “optics,” where the audit is not about reality, but about the “show” that was put on for the auditor for those two or three days. With the pressure of an audit, it is too easy for plant staff and management to forget that the goal of food safety programs is simply not the short-term one of passing the audit, but the ultimately more important one of producing safe food for the consumer. Easily said, but the reality of day-to-day operations in a food plant can make the result very different from the principle. For one thing, an audit must get past the enthusiastic descriptions of a few people and assess the food safety attitude, or culture, of the entire group. Any blame there might be for the thoroughness (or lack thereof) of audits obviously does not rest entirely with auditors, but must also be shouldered by Plant Managers and QA Managers who may feel it necessary to create these “shows” for the auditors without realising how putting on a “show” sends the plant the message that food safety is just a game. Perhaps that is why we see so little progress in reducing recalls and protecting the consumer.

Too often, auditors spend a disproportionate amount of time reviewing documents (procedures and records) and comparatively little time in the plant. A contact at one plant recently told me of a three-day audit where the auditor spent only three hours in the plant.

If some auditors spend too little time in the plant, others skew the results of their third-party audits by inflating scores, recording evaluations much higher than the plants deserve and giving the wrong impression of their performance. The difficulty for auditors is this: if the plant staff and management have been steadily making improvements, they naturally expect their score to rise; on the other hand, the standard also gets tougher every year, and so, even with all their improvements, they may not really deserve a higher score. The pressure on the auditor to “improve” the score can be considerable. It takes a strong person not to give in, but many do. Over time this inflation can result in some very strange scores. For example, there have been cases where a mediocre score for an audit is 92.5 percent, while a good score is 96.6 percent. What happened to the concept of the “average” being 65 percent? Sure, everyone wants to look good, but …

The most consistent complaints of auditors is that they are inconsistent and too often make “mountains out of mole-hills.” With the number of audits being required lately by retailers and other customers, and growing steadily, there is a shortage of knowledgeable, experienced auditors. To audit a food plant properly, the auditor should be technically capable and have working experience in that industry. How can an auditor from, say, the bakery industry audit a yoghurt plant, or meat person audit a winery? The Prerequisite Programs certainly form a common ground across industries, but a thorough understanding of the particular industry is necessary to apply the principles appropriately in the particular situation. But going beyond Prerequisite Programs to HACCP, it is much more difficult to determine whether Critical Control Points (CCPs) are appropriate, designed correctly, or managed effectively. For example, should the pH of a salad dressing be a CCP? What about the seal on a package of hotdogs, or the baking of a loaf of bread? Answering either yes or no requires a deep understanding of the technical issues in each industry. Too often, auditors are not qualified to audit plants in a particular industry, and plant staff and management need to be aware of this fact, and require of the Certification Body (auditing firm) that the auditors are qualified to assess their plant. Yes, you have the right to ask for the résumé of the auditor who is to come to your plant and refuse them if you do not feel they are qualified.

On top of this, with un-scored audits (where no numerical scores are recorded but Major and Minor non-conformances are identified and listed), it is not in the auditor’s best interests to point out non-conformances since they result in volumes of paperwork and perhaps even return visits to resolve Major non-conformances. As a result, an auditor may choose to downgrade Major non-conformances Minor, and Minors to Observations.

Not all the issues lie with auditors. Unrealistic expectations can make an audit unworkable. If an auditing firm is told, for example, that they only have one day to do an audit on a 600,000 ft2 facility, they have certain choices. They can refuse to do the audit, since it cannot be done adequately, or they can acquiesce and take the money. That can –and, for some, has– turned out to be an expensive $1,200 audit. Which leads to the fundamental problem that is, money is changing hands, and this can lead to undue emphasis on competing for business rather than ensuring quality. The plant is paying the auditing firm and even though the standard may be the same, each auditing firm enforces the requirements with varying degrees of rigour. Food plants can choose their auditing firm and too often choose based on which is the easiest.

So who is pointing fingers at whom? No one is guilt-free in the area. There is plenty of blame to go around, but we likewise we share equally the responsibility to change the system, to put the emphasis back where it belongs, on the ultimate goal of ensuring the safety of the food products being shipped from our plants, not racking up great audit scores. Hard as it is, we need to combine integrity with excellence, remembering that the short-term goal of good audit scores is only one piece in the larger picture of producing reliably, demonstrably safe food for our customers.

Irwin Pronk has worked with over 300 companies to implement food safety and quality assurance programs over the past 15 years. He has worked on all sections of the supply chain from agriculture through animal feed production, food processing, distribution and food service. He is a resource for many clients with in-plant facilitation of HACCP & GMP programs (SQF, ISO22000) and is an ISO22000 Lead Assessor. Irwin was a contributor to the Quality Auditor’s HACCP Handbook (ASQ). When it comes to management systems, he is a firm believer in the integration of risk management systems as well as using a behaviour-based approach. He was the winner of the OFPA’s Sanitarian of the Year award in 2005. Prior to consulting he worked with both Pillsbury Canada and Maple Leaf.

He lives in Fergus, which is near Guelph (that’s in Canada).

Australian state to require food safety training for staff

To coach little girls playing ice hockey in Canada requires 16 hours of training. To coach kids on a travel team requires an additional 24 hours of training.

So it seems reasonable to have some minimal training for those who prepare food for public consumption.

The Australian state of New South Wales, which includes Sydney, has decided to agree, and will insist that every restaurant have at least one staff member who has completed a certified course in food handling.

NSW Primary Industry Minister Ian Macdonald said
the State Government is introducing the laws after a spate of outbreaks, adding,

"Thirty-six per cent of food-borne illness outbreaks in NSW are the result of poor food handling. We believe that this is costing in effect $150 million in terms of lost productivity."

Unfortunately, what constitutes a certified course is often crap. The next step is to evaluate what works and what doesn’t – what kind of training actually translates into food service staff practicing safe food prep.

Buying fresh produce is an act of faith: Here’s why

Buying any sort of fresh produce is an act of faith. The Associated Press explains why in a story today.

At the end of a dirt road in northern Mexico, the conveyer belts processing hundreds of tons of vegetables a year for U.S. and Mexican markets are open to the elements, protected only by a corrugated metal roof.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration suspects this packing plant, its warehouse in McAllen, Texas, and a farm in Mexico are among the sources of the United States’ largest outbreak of food-borne illness in a decade, which infected at least 1,440 people with a rare form of salmonella.

A plant manager confirmed to The Associated Press that workers handling chili peppers aren’t required to separate them according to the sanitary conditions in which they were grown, offering a possible explanation for how such a rare strain of salmonella could have caused such a large outbreak.

The AP has found that while some Mexican producers grow fruits and vegetables under strict sanitary conditions for export to the U.S., many don’t — and they can still send their produce across the border easily.

Neither the U.S. nor the Mexican governments impose any safety requirements on farms and processing plants. That includes those using unsanitary conditions — like those at Agricola Zaragoza — and brokers or packing plants that mix export-grade fruits and vegetables with lower-quality produce. …

(There) is no public list of the chains that require sanitary practices, meaning there’s no way to know whether the fruit and vegetables in any particular store is certified or not. …

Agricola Zaragoza is one of the uncertified plants, manager Emilio Garcia told the AP. He said the packing plant washes produce from both certified and uncertified producers, opening up the possibility for contamination. He refused to give details about his suppliers. …

Kathy Means, a vice president for the U.S. Produce Marketing Associations, said food safety is in the hands of the food industry, with most major produce buyers requiring both U.S. and foreign food producers to have third-party audit programs. However, Means said, not all buyers follow the same rules.

"It’s not government-regulated, so it’s up to the company to require it.”

I say, cut the BS and start deliberately marketing food safety. That way, someone has to back it up; not some dance with an auditor or certifier, or some other third party that has nothing to do with credibility and everything to do with providing distance when the shit hits the fan – or the produce.