Broken links in food-safety chain hid peanut plants’ risks

Julie Schmit of USA Today has written another excellent overview documenting the multiple failures – bad inspections, bad audits, bad people — that led to the peanut paste crapola that sickened 700 and killed nine.

Below are just a few of the highlights:

•Deibel Labs, which ran more than 1,600 salmonella tests for PCA’s Blakely plant from 2004 through 2008, found almost 6% positive. It was so many that Deibel sent PCA’s samples to a separate part of its Chicago lab to lessen chances that they’d contaminate other products, Charles Deibel, the firm’s president, said in an interview. For roasted products such as peanuts, a positive rate above 1 in 10,000 would be high, Deibel said. Proper roasting kills salmonella with heat. PCA never asked Deibel to look into the issue, Deibel said.

•Nestlé audited the Blakely plant in 2002 and rejected it as a supplier. Nestlé’s audit report said the plant needed a "better understanding of the concept of deep cleaning" and failed to adequately separate unroasted raw peanuts from roasted ones. Having them in the same area could allow bacteria on raw nuts to contaminate roasted ones, a risk known as cross-contamination. The plant wasn’t even close to Nestlé’s standards, auditor Richard Hutson said in an interview. Hutson, who now heads quality assurance for several Nestlé divisions, said he shared his concerns with PCA officials at the time, but "they didn’t pursue it" further with Nestlé, he says.

• To win customers, Parnell "extolled" the fact that an auditor, AIB International, had rated the plant as "superior," said King Nut CEO Martin Kanan at a congressional hearing. King Nut sold peanut butter under its name that was made by PCA. That rating also satisfied Kellogg, which began buying PCA’s peanut paste for sandwich crackers in 2007.

• AIB also draws criticism from a former food-industry official. Its audit of PCA was "superficial," said Jim Lugg, former food-safety chief for bagged salad maker Fresh Express, who reviewed AIB’s audit of PCA at USA TODAY’s request. One example of "shallow treatment of a big issue," Lugg says, is that the audit notes that PCA had a written program to evaluate suppliers and had an approved list. But AIB did no further checking of the suppliers. Years ago, Fresh Express stopped using AIB audits because it found them inadequate, he adds.

Audits do not enhance food safety culture

“After the PCA (Peanut Corporation of America) plant, you had all the employees saying [the PCA facility] was a dump. It would have been nice for them to say that before nine people died.”

That’s what I told a student reporter for the Kansas State Collegian in this morning’s issue.

The reporter, Tyler Sharp, has been working on a story about Manhattan’s own American Institute of Baking, the auditor at the center of the PCA Salmonella fiasco, for weeks, and had trouble finding anyone to talk. After a March 6, 2009 article in the N.Y. Times sorta shattered the myth of third-party food safety audits, Tyler figured the homegrown story would be a no-brainer. Except he couldn’t get anyone to talk.

Since the release of the Times article, AIB now requires a minimum of two days or longer to complete an inspection at a food processing facility. AIB has also announced it will change the name of its Good Manufacturing Practices inspection certificates from “Certificate of Achievement” to “Recognition of Achievement.”

Is that like Homer Simpson winning the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence?

I told Tyler, the reporter,

“Third-party food audits, like restaurant inspection, are a snapshot in time. They are not indicative of what happens day in and day out. It doesn’t really tell you much. There are some audits that are OK. It depends on the auditor. My concern is that — and I have done a lot of work with farmers and producers and companies — what you really want is to help people become better with food safety, whereas an audit is just a checklist that penalizes people. That doesn’t necessarily help people get better with food safety.”

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 rather than the local/natural/organic hucksterism is a way to further reinforce the food safety culture.

Costco, a retail store, which previously limited AIB’s inspections to its bakery vendors, has now instructed suppliers to not use AIB at all.

“The American Institute of Baking is bakery experts,” said R. Craig Wilson, the top safety official at Costco. “But you stick them in a peanut butter plant or in a beef plant, they are stuffed.”

Or as Mansour Samadpour of Seattle says,

“The contributions of third-party audits to food safety is the same as the contribution of mail-order diploma mills to education.”

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.

Salmonella recalls grow; Obama orders review of FDA operations

As the number of recalled products topped 800, U.S. President Barack Obama said this morning he is ordering a “complete review” of the Food and Drug Administration after it failed to detect shipments of salmonella-contaminated peanut products.

In an interview taped Sunday and aired this morning on the television gabfest, Today, Obama said the agency’s failure to recognize and intercept the products was only the latest of numerous “instances over the last several years” in which “the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch.”

“At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter.”

USA Today today reported that the recall, one of the largest ever, started with bulk peanut butter, spread to crackers and cookies and has engulfed products as diverse as kettle corn, pad Thai and trail mix, with over 800 recalls and many more expected this week.

Robert Brackett, senior vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said anecdotal evidence indicates that sales of all peanut-related products, even unaffected peanut butters, are slipping, adding,

"All it takes is a little company, and it has a huge ripple effect.”

The GMA says Peanut Corporation of America supplied less than 1% of peanut products sold in the U.S. Still, the FDA says the company has more than 300 customers, many of whom used PCA’s products as an ingredient.

Brackett fears consumers will tire of checking recall lists and begin shunning anything with peanuts. Past food scares have shown that to be true.

When asked by CBC Radio in Sudbury, Ontario this morning, “what’s a consumer to do,” I said,

“Avoid the stuff for now. It may not be fair, but the recall list is growing so fast, it’s prudent. And now folks have an idea what people with peanut allergies have to go through.”

Cupcakes and confections without infections

Guest barfblogger Michéle Samarya-Timm of the Franklin Township Health Department in Somerset, NJ, writes:

Amy Silverman of the Phoenix New Times recently wrote about the lack of handwashing at Sprinkles Bakery, as noted by the Maricopa County Restaurant Inspection Team. In her assessment, enforcement of handwashing at this establishment is “as ridiculous as the ban on bake sales at my kids’ school.”

Handwashing…ridiculous?? With all the recent media coverage of outbreaks and recalls, taking steps to prevent a potential outbreak should not be viewed as ridiculous, but a public health essential.

Outbreaks in cakes are not unusual. In 2005, an outbreak of norovirus gastroenteritis associated with cake affected up to 2700 persons in Massachusetts. According to the CDC, it is likely that one or more food workers at the source bakery contaminated the cakes through direct and indirect contact.

In Japan, nearly 100 schoolchildren and teachers suffered diarrhea late last year after allegedly being infected with norovirus from cake served in their school lunch.

And it could happen again. Cake icing, as innocent as it may look, has the potential to cause large gastrointestinal outbreaks, as it is usually evenly mixed, and not processed further. Most foodborne outbreaks of norovirus illness arise from direct contamination of food by a food handler, immediately before consumption. Icing, or cake, can very easily become contaminated with norovirus because the virus is so small and because it probably takes fewer than 100 norovirus particles to make a person sick.

Investigations support that a majority of norovirus outbreaks are from oral-fecal transmission. Prevention for norovirus, and many other foodborne illness is —you guessed it –no bare hand contact of ready to eat foods and following through on conscientious handwashing practices.

We don’t want a confection to become an infection – nor do we want a potential dose of diarrhea, norovirus, or other potential nasty in our food – or anyone else’s. If this shiny chain is “all about image” as reported, that image should include following through on good handwashing practices. Maricopa inspectors should be praised – not ridiculed – for working to prevent potential disease outbreaks.

Yes, I like my cupcakes with sprinkles, but I also want my cupcakes to be handled in a sanitary manner and accompanied by a chorus or two of Happy Birthday – while all involved are enthusiastically lathering at the handsink.