Maple Leaf discovers the thesaurus

Amy and me and baby Sorenne are headed to Boston, leaving Manhattan (Kansas) at 3 a.m. tomorrow. And whatever stresses come along, it’s good to remember the basics.

Amy and me, we like to write, and we make each other better. We also surround ourselves with others who want to do things better.

Michael McCain (right, exactly as shown) may run a $5.5 billion a year company but Maple Leaf Foods has lousy writers. They’ve got the on-line thesaurus to find synonyms like stringent, thorough and rigorous, but the writers utterly fail to explain what this means.

Yesterday, Maple Leaf Foods Inc. reported a fourth quarter loss that narrowed on higher sales and helped by price increases, fluctuations in the Canadian dollar and contributions from acquisitions. Results, however, were impacted by the recall of meat products, contaminated with a strain of listeria bacteria, linked to the illness and death of several consumers.

Uh, 20 dead and at least 56 sick is not several consumers.

The same day, Maple Leaf announced that it is proceeding with a voluntary recall of approximately 1,100 cases of wieners produced at its plant in Hamilton, Ontario because the products were shipped in violation of the company’s rigorous food safety protocols. …

Under Maple Leaf’s stringent food safety protocols, the Company tests for listeria species, not Listeria monocytogenes. Six species of Listeria exist, but only one, Listeria monocytogenes, has any potential to impact human health. This is an extremely conservative approach as it treats any positive listeria test result with the highest level of corrective actions. Due to human error, a small quantity of wieners produced at the Hamilton plant that were quarantined under these routine enhanced procedures was inadvertently shipped to distribution centres and customers in Eastern Canada. All customers have been notified and product is immediately being removed from inventory or store shelves and returned to the Company.

Why is the Company capitalized? Will the Canadian economy shrivel if one questions the Company? And did Michael McCain call each customer?

"Unlike other situations, this event occurred as a direct result of human error and did not uphold our stringent industry leading protocols." said Michael McCain, President and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods. "Notwithstanding the exceptionally low risk this represents, Maple Leaf is committed to maintaining the most stringent standards and we intend to live by those standards so consumers can have absolute confidence in the integrity of our products. We are taking immediate action and will not condone anything other than strict adherence to our protocols."

That’s a lot of words to say we screwed up, again. But it gets better.

"As we have seen with the wide range of food products which have been recalled to date in 2009, as enhanced surveillance becomes more pervasive in the food industry, positive listeria findings and related recalls will occur more frequently. This should be regarded positively as it provides assurance that the industry and government are acting swiftly to protect public health", said Mr. McCain.

Who is we? What are these food products that have been recalled in 2009? The ones that contain peanut paste shit? Or just listeria ones? Who’s enhanced surveillance? Sara Lee’s Bil Mar unit had a listeria outbreak linked to hot dogs that killed 20 in 1998. Why is Maple Leaf bragging about enhanced surveillance 10 years and another 20 deaths too late?

Maple Leaf has implemented the most stringent food safety system in Canada.

Canada? Where they have visiting U.S. Presidents sign a guest book and worship their vengeful beaver gods with offerings of back bacon and doughnuts (go to 1:25 min in the video below).

As I said in the Toronto Star this morning,

"People, especially kids, eat … processed hot dog wieners all the time (without cooking them) or just give them a quick zap in the microwave."

Michael McCain, since you’re the face of Maple Leaf, do you let your kids eat processed wieners straight out of the refrigerator? Should there be warning labels on packages of hot dogs not to eat them without cooking to a sufficient internal temperature?

Tweeting about Food Safety

Do you remember how you first heard about the latest round of Salmonella in the peanut butter?  Was it on the evening news, in the paper, or did you hear about it through Facebook or Twitter?  If you’re in the under 30 crowd you might fit into the latter category.  Social networking sites, like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are increasingly being utilized for up-to-the-minute recall information.

During the recent Salmonella outbreak, the United States Department of Health and Human Services – specifically the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – engaged in a heavy social media push to inform citizens about the health risks and product recalls.  As a result, the CDC Social Media Center was created as a central hub for harnessing the power of social networking to spread recall information.

Twitter is one of the sites currently used in the assortment of links.   Twitter allows users to “follow” one another’s “tweets” about what they do during the day.  The website is on the rise among medical professionals and there are accounts for all ranges of industry available.  Why not food safety?

Federal health agencies have been experimenting with new Internet tools, dubbed Web 2.0, that make it easier to deliver information directly to the public. The "Health 2.0" movement got a big boost with the arrival of President Barack Obama, who is pushing federal agencies to use the tools to make the federal government more transparent and participatory.

Current news about FDA recalls can be found @FDArecalls and public health updates from the CDC can be found @CDCemergency. The only snag is you have to sign up in order to receive tweets from the FDA, but hey, its free.  After all, you’re no one if you’re not on Twitter.


The recalls grow

AP is reporting that the Texas Department of State Health Services has ordered a recall of everything ever produced at Peanut Corp of America’s plant in Plainview TX.

The order came Thursday evening from the Department of State Health Services. The agency says "dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers" were discovered Wednesday in a crawl space above a production area.

A state inspection also found that the unit’s air handling system was pulling debris from the infested crawl space into production areas.

The plant began operating in March 2005 but was shut down earlier this week.

The health department order also requires the plant to stop producing and distributing food products.

This will lead to more recalls — the FDA’s searchable database already lists over 2000.

Some choice quotes:

Robert Grauer, president of In a Nut Shell, a San Leandro, Calif., said he’s not taking any chances. The company has about 200 cases of peanuts from the Texas plant, and has to decided to hold them in storage.

"We’re not going to take a chance risking our customers — not over some peanuts."

Ken Werner, owner of Werner Gourmet Meat Snacks Inc. in Tillamook, Ore., said fewer than 20 of his company’s roughly 100 products contain peanuts. He recalled trail mixes and peanuts that were covered under earlier recalls linked to the Georgia plant. But he hadn’t yet recalled any products linked to the Texas plant.

"We’re waiting to hear from the FDA as far as a recall," he said. "If they issue a recall, we’ll recall more products."

The Bergin Fruit & Nut Co. in St. Paul, Minn., has had nearly 2,000 pounds of raw redskin and blanched peanuts on hold since late January, when Peanut Corp. issued an expanded recall that included products produced at its Georgia plant as far back as 2007, said quality control manager Bill Jaspers.

"We will probably be destroying it because, frankly, I think PCA has got bigger problems than a product recall," he said.

Recalls wreak havoc, but safety sells

At the grocery store yesterday I found jars of Kroger peanut butter stacked nearly waist-high on display at the end of an aisle. Curious, I circled the display, thinking I might find a sign saying “Does not contain Salmonella” or something to that effect. There was no such ad.

Why aren’t the makers of safe peanut butter bragging about it?

K-LOVE is always in the background when I do my writing.

While one of the K-LOVE news anchors was updating listeners on the Peanut Corp. salmonella outbreak, the DJ mentioned he put off buying a jar of peanut butter at the grocery store the night before. He felt it wiser to wait.

Peanut Corp., the FDA, and several snack manufacturers—including General Mills and Kroger—have warned against eating products made with peanut butter and/or peanut paste produced by Peanut Corp.

FDA may not be entirely sure what products those are, but has said many times,

"We don’t have concern about the national, name-brand peanut butter that’s sold in jars at supermarkets and retail outlets."

Consumers are wary anyway.

Part of the problem could be the misleading images (such as the graphic above by ABC News) put forth by the media.

It could just be that recalls are scary.

After the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak, Canadians cut back on deli meats of all brands and even stopped buying hot dogs. People defensively avoided anything recognized to support the growth of listeria.

People value safe food.

If given a compelling story of how companies and industries identify and control risks, they might make different buying decisions.

Canadian rejection of peanuts led to recall? I don’t think so.

The Globe and Mail reports today that a rejected shipment of Peanut Corp of America’s (PCA) chopped peanuts last spring led to the recall of almost 200 products in Canada and over 800 in the U.S.

The Globe article says:

A customer in Canada rejected the peanuts, an act that may have saved lives here, and prompted officials with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to turn their attention to sanitary conditions in the Blakely, Ga., peanut plant at the centre of the outbreak.

As Fred Willard so succinctly puts it in A Mighty Wind:  "I don’t think so".

It’s more likely that the 500+ illnesses and the 8 deaths linked to PCA’s peanut butter products (not the customer-rejected peanuts — in April 2008) led to the recall.

And overstating how great the system works (which happens all too often, akin to safest food in the world) when lots of other companies in Canada have used the peanut butter products is not all that reassuring.  I know there is a lot of anti-America sentiment around the economic stimulus/protectionism stuff, but a Canadian company rejecting that shipment did not save the day and halt this outbreak (which is still classed as active) or start the recall. Sure the rejected shipment is part of the picture, but no one got really excited before the Salmonella illnesses started showing up. 

That’s right.

When danger lurks in the grocery aisles, call the Recaller

Deciphering recall information is tough for the regular consumer.

Automated phone calls to shoppers have been appreciated. Pictures of products have also helped to clear things up.

But it seems that retailers need some assistance accessing and utilizing recall information to better aide consumers.

Recalled products were found on grocery and convenience store shelves after:
Salmonella bacteria were discovered in Veggie Booty snacks,
botulinum toxin was found in Castleberry’s chili,
Topps meat was recalled due to E. coli contamination,
Listeria monocytogenes was detected in Maple Leaf deli meats, and
dairy products were found to contain melamine.

Growing up, my brother Skyler had an awesome Batman alarm clock. When it was time to get up, the Bat-Signal would shine on the ceiling and a voice would say, “Gotham City is in trouble; call for Batman!” It was a great call to action.

I think the citizens need another hero: The Recaller.

Along with a handful of producers, some grocery retailers have specialized personnel on staff to manage food safety issues.

Barry Parsons
fills that role for the three Stauffers supermarkets in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

When he gets news of a recall, Parsons says,

"Twenty minutes to a half an hour and it’s off the shelf."

POW. BAM. WHAP. The threat is negated.

My bother Jesse (currently a third grader) found a hero in Spiderman.

All the aforementioned recalls have shown that the production and distribution of food today has the power to reach and—positively or adversely—affect many, many people. And you know what Uncle Ben says about great power….

"There’s a lot of responsibility being in the food business," Parsons said. "I really care about this.

"Because it could be a child. I’ve had children myself. Imagine if your child got sick. How would you feel as a parent? The elderly — they’re susceptible. My parents are in their 80s. That really hits me."

That’s what I see as a culture of food safety.

The superhero I favored was a good guy from Kansas: Superman.

(At right: Dean Cain’s costume from ‘Lois and Clark’ was on display alongside old mining equipment and [representative] boxes of stored film reels at the  Kansas Underground Salt Museum when Bret took me last year.)

The Pennsylvania Recaller says of his position,

"You’ve really got to be dedicated to it, and you’ve really got to have a sense of caring.

"You’ve got to say, ‘No matter what’s going to happen, I’m going to make sure my customers are safe, my employers are safe.’

"This is not something I do as a job. It’s just what I do. It’s who I am."

Facing a recall without superhero senses leaves some vulnerable to confusion

I don’t like fresh tomatoes. Generally, my careful avoidance of them is a fairly unique practice. At least, I thought so until I met Bret. We stand together in our quest for vegetables that don’t leak acid on the rest of the salad.

We were on our honeymoon when the outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul in tomatoes and/or hot peppers hit the news. Many people joined our stance on tomatoes then… but it took me a while to realize it.

Since I wasn’t reading FSnet while we were gone, I had to hear the warnings put out on eating tomatoes like a regular consumer would. It was like my superhero senses were turned off.

At the time, I wasn’t in the habit of watching the news. And according to the results of a Rutgers Food Policy Institute (FPI) survey,

“The majority of respondents (66 percent) first heard about the advisory on television.”

Throughout our trip, we ate at cafes, buffets, and casual dining establishments. When we didn’t eat out, we stopped at Wal-Mart for cereal and sandwich supplies. None of those places showed signs of produce being recalled.

The survey found,

“A small minority (8 percent) first heard about it from restaurants and retailers.”

As it happened, some of the first news I received came from my step-dad’s mom, who understood the problem to be in tomatoes sold with the vine still attached.

Hearing through the tomato-vine was problematic, though. I later learned the CDC advised,

“…persons with increased risk of severe infections…should not eat raw Roma or red round tomatoes other than those sold attached to the vine or grown at home…”

Those two words, “other than”, were missed (or misunderstood) at some point in the chain of communication that ended with me.

Lead author of the Rutgers FPI report, Dr. Cara Cuite said in a press release,

“Our results suggest that consumers may have a hard time taking in many details about these types of food-borne problems.”

Almost half (48 percent) of people surveyed indicated they were not sure which types of tomatoes were under suspicion.

I was back at superhero headquarters (i.e. in front of my Mac) when Salmonella Saintpaul was found in a sample of jalapenos from Mexico, and again when the outbreak strain was isolated from a Mexican serrano pepper and the water used to irrigate it.

Most consumers weren’t so lucky. From the survey,

“The researchers found that while almost all respondents (93 percent) were aware that tomatoes were believed to [be] the source of the illness, only 68 percent were aware…that peppers were also associated with the outbreak.”

Dr. Cara Cuite commented in the press release,

“This research is especially timely in light of the growing number of recalls as a result of the Salmonella outbreak associated with peanut butter and peanut paste.”

How can consumers be better informed? One practice seen in both outbreaks that helped alleviate some confusion was the use of club membership or “loyalty card” information to contact customers who had recently bought recalled products.

What else can be done to clear things up? After all, regular consumers don’t have superhero senses.

Doggie chips recalled cause of Salmonella concern

Hartz chicken-basted rawhide chips for dogs are being voluntarily recalled due to concerns that one or more bags within the lot are potentially contaminated with Salmonella.

The company announced the recall Friday, saying the two-pound plastic bags of chips with lot code JC23282, UPC number 3270096463 were distributed to a national retail customer it did not identify.

Randy Phebus and I discuss the problems with Salmonella in pet food, treats, and the potential for cross-contamination in the video below.

Aunt Jemima mix recall due to Salmonella

Quaker Oats announced yesterday that it is recalling a limited amount of pancake and waffle mixes due to potential Salmonella contamination.  I wrote a couple of weeks back about sesame seeds and Salmonella, and how dried goods (like seeds, nuts and flour) seem to be prone to Salmonella contamination.

Quick hits on this recall:

1. Interesting to me that the FDA’s press release and Quaker Oats press release includes this line (and it is in italics on the FDA site, as to highlight it):
There is very low risk of illness when preparation directions on box are followed and product is not consumed raw or undercooked. Salmonella bacteria is killed at a temperature of 160° F.
After Conagra’s meat pie communication I didn’t think we’d see consumer control messages like this. I wonder how hot pancakes get?  Or waffles, it’s kind of hard to use a thermometer on them. I like my waffles kind of light, just cooked enough to not fall apart.  Not sure what the literature says on this one. 

2. Quaker Oats has great information on their website already (here, at top, and here), with a nice graphic on how to handle the recall.  The consumer information on Aunt Jemima’s graphic doesn’t include the undercooked message that the press releases do.  Especially love that people can sign-up for ongoing info — good preparation on Quaker Oats’ part.

Today’s ifsn infosheet: ground beef products linked to outbreak

Today’s infosheet focuses on an outbreak of E. coli O157 linked to ground beef and ground beef products served at restaurants in the US.   We use the outbreak and recall to highlight the importance of handling ground beef and patties properly in kitchens, including proper cooking, keeping foods separate, using clean equipment and handwashing.  You can download the infosheet here.