Can I get that in writing? Listeria outbreak report reeks of swarminess; melon farmers blame auditors/buyers who blame regulators

There’s plenty of swarminess to go around in a new report by the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on the listeria-in-cantaloupe outbreak of 2011.

That’s what happens when 30 (or 31) people are killed, 1 suffers a miscarriage and at least 146 are sickened from eating some fruit.

The report concludes the outbreak could have been avoided if Jensen Farms of Colorado had maintained its facilities in accordance with existing guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is not mandatory.

This is nothing new. FDA has been issuing guidance on how to produce safe produce since 1998 and, like spinach and leafy greens and tomatoes, cantaloupe growers now have to act like, oh, we didn’t know.

Fortunately, the vast majority of cantaloupe growers do know how to produce safe product. But any commodity is only as good as its worst performer. Which is why verification matters, and once again, audits, as currently designed, aren’t up to the task.

Not mentioned in the report is the devastating effect the outbreak had on individuals, families, other growers and the flaws in relying on others – in food safety they’re called auditors — to check things out.

Here’s what the various players told the Congressional investigators:

FDA officials cited several deficiencies in Jensen Farms’ facility, which reflected a general lack of awareness of food safety principles and may have contributed to the outbreak, including:

• condensation from cooling systems draining directly onto the floor;
• poor drainage resulting in water pooling around the food processing equipment;
• inappropriate food processing equipment which was difficult to clean (i.e., Listeria found on the felt roller brushes);
• no antimicrobial solution, such as chlorine, in the water used to wash the cantaloupes; and,
• no equipment to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before they were placed into cold storage.

FDA emphasized to Committee staff that the processing equipment and the decision not to chlorinate the water used to wash the cantaloupes were two probable causes of the contamination.

Primus Labs has audited Jensen Farms during the course of Jensen Farms’ relationship with Frontera Produce, beginning in 2003. Primus Labs hired a subcontractor, Bio Food Safety, Inc., to conduct its recent audits of Jensen Farms. On August 5, 2010, Jerry Walzel, the President of Bio Food Safety, audited the Jensen Farms packing facility and gave it a 95% grade – a “superior” rating, despite finding several major and minor deficiencies.

One precaution that Jensen Farms took in 2010, which it dropped in 2011, was to use an antimicrobial solution, such as chlorine, in the cantaloupe wash water. The front page of the August 2010 audit stated, “[t]his facility packs fresh cantaloupes from their own fields into cartons. The melons are washed and then run through a hydro cooler which has chlorine added to the water. Once the product is dried and packed into cartons it is placed into coolers.” After the August 2010 audit was completed, one of the Jensen brothers informed Mr. Walzel that they were interested in improving their processes. According to Jensen Farms, in response to this inquiry, Mr. Walzel indicated that they should consider new equipment to replace the hydrocooler the farm used to process cantaloupe. Mr. Walzel stated that the hydrocooler, with its recirculating water, was a potential food safety “hotspot,” and advised them to consider alternate equipment. Based on his comments, and input from a local equipment broker, Jensen Farms purchased and retrofitted equipment previously used to process potatoes.

The Jenson brothers stated that they changed from the hydrocooler to the new food processing equipment in an attempt to strengthen their food safety efforts.
Jensen Farms stated that they contracted with Primus Labs to perform an audit in July 2011. Again, Primus Labs subcontracted with Bio Food Safety to conduct the audit. Mr. Walzel did not conduct this audit; a new auditor from Bio Food Safety, James Dilorio, conducted the audit on July 25, 2011, and, after spending approximately four hours inspecting the facility, gave Jensen Farms a 96% grade – again a “superior” rating. Despite this high rating, Mr. Dilorio identified several deficiencies, including three “major deficiencies”: (1) wood (which can house bacteria and cause splinters) covered the unloading and packing tables, (2) lack of hot water at hand washing stations, and (3) doors left open during operating hours, potentially allowing pests to enter the facility.

Jensen Farms noted that it received a visit from a representative of Frontera Produce, its distributor, shortly before the 2011 audit. According to the Jensen brothers, this representative provided them with advice about preparing for the audit, but did not note any problems. Jensen Farms informed Committee staff that quality control representatives from various retailers have visited the farm as well. The Jensen brothers stated that based on these inspections and their prior food safety record, they had no concerns about their operations prior to the recent outbreak.

Will Steele and Amy Gates, the CEO and executive vice president of Frontera Produce, told Committee staff that they had visited Jensen Farms to inspect its facilities and provide business advice and both were critical of the current standards for third-party audits and had concerns about inadequate standards.
Ms. Gates indicated that there is “no industry standard for validation points” after an audit, while Mr. Steele stated that “this is the industry standard. I’ve always believed there’s got to be more validation points. This case clearly demonstrates that.”

Robert Stovicek, president of Primus Labs told Committee staff that his company’s role is to conduct an impartial assessment of a client’s operations and provide its findings to the client. He stated that the audits are intended to assess whether the client’s operations are in compliance with current baseline industry standards—not to improve those standards or push a client towards best practices. Mr. Stovicek said that Primus Labs would “be a rogue element if they tried to pick winners and losers” by holding industry to higher standards. He also said that Primus Labs did not have the “expertise to determine which best practices should be pushed by the industry.”

Jerry Walzel, the president of Bio Food Safety, told the Committee that – consistent with Primus Labs policy – the audits only deducted from the score if a method or technique was inconsistent with FDA regulations; they did not deduct from the score if FDA guidance was not being followed. … He stated that Bio Food Safety auditors were “roped in by regulation and Primus training,” and that “guidelines are opinions…. regulations are law.”

Additionally, he noted, “we are not supposed to be opinionated on this, we are supposed to go by FDA’s regulations… FDA should have mandated that you cannot sell cantaloupes that have not been sanitized.”

According to Frontera Produce, in response to the outbreak, many major retailers have already instituted end-product testing of cantaloupe to identify Listeria, Salmonella and other pathogens. Frontera Produce officials also informed Committee staff that retailers and industry groups are studying the possible implementation of additional checks at different critical control points in the supply chain, including risk-based assessments and sample testing. Primus Labs noted, and FDA confirmed, that buyers will immediately start requiring auditors to take environmental swabs while auditing food facilities.

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver, also asked the FDA to step up regulation of outside auditors, who they say bring numerous "conflicts of interest" to the food safety system. Excerpts from their letter are below:

The investigation identified significant problems with the third-party inspection system used by growers and distributors to ensure the safety of fresh produce, This auditing system is often the first and only line of defense against a deadly foodborne disease outbreak. …

Our investigation reveals some of the reasons why: the auditors’ findings were not based on the practices of the best farms and failed to ensure that the producer met FDA guidance; the auditors missed or failed to prioritize important food safety deficiencies; the auditors lacked any regulatory authority and did not report identified problems to the FDA or other state or federal authorities; the auditors did not ensure that identified problems were resolved; and the auditors provided advance notice of site visits and spent only a short period of time on-site. It also became apparent in the investigation that the auditors had multiple conflicts of interest.

The problems identified in the audits of Jensen Farms are similar to those that the Committee identified in food safety investigations in 2009 and 2010. In 2009, following the Salmonella outbreak in peanut butter products sold by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), a Committee investigation revealed that a private, for-profit auditing firm gave the company glowing reviews (step forward American Institute of Baking). The auditor, AlB, was selected by PCA, it was paid by PCA, and it reported to PCA. The auditor awarded a "superior" rating to the company’s plant. Six months after the audit, PCA’s products killed nine people and sickened 691 people .

In 2010, the Committee’s investigation into an outbreak of Salmonella in eggs produced by Wright County Egg revealed the same problems with third-party audits. Following the outbreak, federal officials inspected Wright County Egg facilities and found serious violations of food safety standards, including barns infested with mice, chicken manure piled eight feet high, and uncaged hens tracking through excrement. There were very different results when Wright County Egg farms were inspected by AlB. AlB gave Wright County Egg an award two months before the outbreak, rating them "superior" and awarding the company a "recognition of achievement.”

Weaknesses in third-party auditors represent a significant gap in the food safety system because the auditors are often the only entities to inspect a farm or facility. … Like it or not.our food safety system relies heavily on third party auditors to identify dangerous practices and prevent contaminated foods from reaching the market.


Canadian prods horse with hockey stick; rapid Taiwanese animation decries return of horse slaughter in US

Associated Press reported yesterday that horses could soon be slaughtered in the U.S. for human consumption after Congress quietly lifted a 5-year-old ban on funding horse meat inspections, and activists say slaughterhouses could be up and running in as little as a month.

Today, Taiwanese animation house NMA released one of their signature videos to address the situation.

Grub Street New York says things to watch for in the video are “the horse that gets zapped into a pile of money (we’re pretty sure that’s not how the slaughter actually happens) and the bloody Seabiscuit saddle at the French dinner table.”

I appreciated the Canadian slaughterhouse worker in a hockey jersey prodding a horse with a hockey stick.

Some background on the horse slaughter debate from AP; Australia also has two horse slaughterhouses.

Slaughter opponents pushed a measure cutting off funding for horse meat inspections through Congress in 2006 after other efforts to pass outright bans on horse slaughter failed in previous years. Congress lifted the ban in a spending bill President Barack Obama signed into law Nov. 18 to keep the government afloat until mid-December.

It did not, however, allocate any new money to pay for horse meat inspections, which opponents claim could cost taxpayers $3 million to $5 million a year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would have to find the money in its existing budget, which is expected to see more cuts this year as Congress and the White House aim to trim federal spending.

The USDA issued a statement Tuesday saying there are no slaughterhouses in the U.S. that butcher horses for human consumption now, but if one were to open, it would conduct inspections to make sure federal laws were being followed.

Pro-slaughter activists say the ban had unintended consequences, including an increase in neglect and the abandonment of horses, and that they are scrambling to get a plant going – possibly in Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska or Missouri.

Sue Wallis, a Wyoming state lawmaker who’s the group’s vice president, said ranchers used to be able to sell horses that were too old or unfit for work to slaughterhouses but now they have to ship them to butchers in Canada and Mexico, where they fetch less than half the price.

The federal ban devastated "an entire sector of animal agriculture for purely sentimental and romantic notions," she said.

Although there are reports of Americans dining on horse meat a recently as the 1940s, the practice is virtually non-existent in this country, where the animals are treated as beloved pets and iconic symbols of the West.

A federal report issued in June found that local animal welfare organizations reported a spike in investigations for horse neglect and abandonment since 2007. In Colorado, for example, data showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60 percent – from 975 in 2005 to almost 1,600 in 2009.

The report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office also determined that about 138,000 horses were transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010, nearly the same number that were killed in the U.S. before the ban took effect in 2007. The U.S. has an estimated 9 million horses.

Leslie Nielsen, food safety and lame ducks

Leslie Nielsen is still dead, but the food safety wonks in Washington are keeping the fans in stiches.

The U.S. Senate’s slapstick effort to pass food safety legislation is not going to result in fewer sick people. But it does set a tone, like restaurant inspection grades, that food safety is important, that elected officials may, sorta, be paying attention. And if it gets food safety on The Daily Show, then great.

For those who need reminding, food safety is not at the top of the legislative agenda.

“A food safety bill that has burned up precious days of the Senate’s lame-duck session appears headed back to the chamber because Democrats violated a constitutional provision requiring that tax provisions originate in the House. … The debacle could prove to be a major embarrassment for Senate Democrats, who sought Tuesday to make the relatively unknown bill a major political issue by sending out numerous news releases trumpeting its passage.”
John Stanton, Roll Call

"The bipartisan bill, which would overhaul the nation’s food safety system, still has to go back to the House, so there’s plenty of time to screw it up. … staff members for the leading Democratic and Republican senators on the health committee actually got together and worked things out the way they used to do in olden days. Most of the negotiators were women, and while I am certainly not saying that made a difference, I am, sort of, just saying.
“Oh, my gosh! It’s so important,” said Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I’m glad I rushed back from our break to work on food safety.”

Gail Collins, The New York Times

“Food Safety Bill will save the lives of thousands”
Environmental Working Group

And to Jon Stewart last night.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Food, the Bad and the Ugly
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor The Daily Show on Facebook

Food safety Bill passes House – will it mean fewer sick people?

While the websphere, blogsphere and twittersphere were ejaculating electrons about the potential passage of new food safety legislation by the U.S. House– it passed — I was hanging out with some food safety dudes at Publix supermarkets HQ in Lakeland, Florida.

And I saw far more in Lakeland that would impact daily food safety than anything the politicians, bureaucrats, hangers-on and chatting classes could ever come up with.

When it comes to the safety of the food supply, I generally ignore the chatter from Washington, as well as the wasted Internet commentaries and conspiracy theories. If a proposal does emerge, such as the creation of a single food inspection agency, or the bill that passed the House today – and just the House — I ask, Will it actually make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

As the General Accounting Office pointed out in a report a year ago,

“The burden for food safety in most of the selected countries lies primarily with food producers, rather than with inspectors, although inspectors play an active role in overseeing compliance. This principle applies to both domestic and imported products.”

Publix, with over 1,000 supermarkets, its own processing plants, and thousands of food products moving through its shelves, can’t afford the luxury of chatter.

After my visit, I went to the local Publix in St. Pete Beach to check out what the food safety type said – sure, the boss knows food safety, but do the front-line staff?

I ordered some shaved smoked turkey breast from the deli, and the sealable bag the meat was delivered in contained the following:

“Publix Deli
The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses
Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase
And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase”

(The picture isn’t very good. Note to Publix: The label warning about shelf-life is a great idea, but can’t read it if the price sticker gets slapped over some of the text.)

This is the first time I’ve seen a retailer provide information to consumers on the accurate shelf-life of sliced deli meats. It didn’t require Congressional hearings; it didn’t require some hopelessly-flawed consumer education campaign; it required a food safety type to say, this is important, let’s do it.

I also went looking for some bread for turkey sandwiches tomorrow as we move down to Sarasota, and then Venice Beach. I asked an employee in the bakery for some whole wheat rolls, and she pointed out what was available, said packages of six were pre-packaged, but she could get me whatever number I wanted. I asked for four. There was no bin for me to stick my who-knows-where-they-have-been hands in to and retrieve a few rolls. The bins were turned so that only staff had access. The employee said it had been that way since she started three years ago, and that “there’s just too much stuff going around” to let consumers stick their hands into bun bins (most commonly found item in communal bun bins? False fingernails).

It’s nice that food safety is once again a Presidential priority and that politicians are trying to set a tone. But chatting doesn’t mean fewer sick people – actions do.