Show us the data, forget the faith; food sickens millions as company-paid checks find it safe

William Beach loved cantaloupe — so much so that starting in June last year he ate it almost every day. By August, the 87-year-old retired tractor mechanic from Mustang, Oklahoma, was complaining to his family that he was fatigued, with pain everywhere in his body.

On Sept. 1, 2011, Beach got out of bed in the middle of the night, put his clothes on and walked into the living room. His wife, Monette, found him collapsed on the floor in the morning. At the hospital, blood poured from his mouth and nose, splattering sheets, bed rails and physicians.

He died that night, a victim of Listeria monocytogenes. Beach was one of 33 people killed by listeria that was later traced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state officials to contaminated cantaloupes from one Colorado farm. It was the deadliest outbreak of foodborne disease in the U.S. in almost 100 years.

“He died in terror and pain,” says his daughter Debbie Frederick.

That’s how Stephanie Armour, John Lippert and Michael Smith begin their food safety and aduits and inspections opus for Bloomberg. The Today Show may run a version this morning, because I taped a bit for it at Brisbane’s Channel 7 studios last week.

About seven weeks after Beach started eating cantaloupes, a private, for-profit inspection company awarded a top safety rating to Jensen Farms, the Granada, Colorado, grower of his toxic fruit. The approval meant retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Wegmans Food Markets Inc. could sell Jensen melons.

The FDA, a federal agency nominally responsible for overseeing most food safety, had never inspected Jensen.

During the past two decades, the food industry has taken over much of the FDA’s role in ensuring that what Americans eat is safe. The agency can’t come close to vetting its jurisdiction of $1.2 trillion in annual food sales.

In 2011, the FDA inspected 6 percent of domestic food producers and just 0.4 percent of importers. The FDA has had no rules for how often food producers must be inspected.

The food industry hires for-profit inspection companies — known as third-party auditors — who aren’t required by law to meet any federal standards and have no government supervision. Some of these monitors choose to follow guidelines from trade groups that include ConAgra Foods Inc. (CAG), Kraft Foods Inc. and Wal-Mart.

The private inspectors that companies select often check only those areas their clients ask them to review. That means they can miss deadly pathogens lurking in places they never examined.

What for-hire auditors do is cloaked in secrecy; they don’t have to make their findings public. Bloomberg Markets obtained four audit reports and three audit certificates through court cases, congressional investigations and company websites.

Six audits gave sterling marks to the cantaloupe farm, an egg producer, a peanut processor and a ground-turkey plant — either before or right after they supplied toxic food.

Collectively, these growers and processors were responsible for tainted food that sickened 2,936 people and killed 43 in 50 states.

“The outbreaks we’re seeing are endless,” says Doug Powell, lead author of an Aug. 30, 2012, study on third-party monitors called “Audits and Inspections Are Never Enough.” Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, says Americans are at risk whenever they go to a supermarket.

“You need to be in a culture that takes food safety seriously,” Powell says. “Right now, what we have is hidden. The third-party auditor stickers and certificates are meaningless.”

In some cases, for-hire auditors have financial ties to executives at companies they’re reviewing. AIB International Inc., a Manhattan, Kansas, auditor that awarded top marks to producers that sold toxic food, has had board members who are top managers at companies that are clients.

Executives of Flowers Foods Inc. (FLO), which makes Tastykake, and Grupo Bimbo SAB in Mexico City, which makes Entenmann’s pastries, Sara Lee baked goods and Wonder Bread, serve or have served on AIB’s board.

“There’s a fundamental conflict,” says David Kessler, a lawyer and physician who was FDA commissioner from 1990 to 1997. “We all know about third-party audit conflicts. We’ve seen it play out in the financial world. You can’t be tied to your auditors. There has to be independence.”

As flawed as the inspection system is in the U.S., it’s more problematic with imported food, especially coming from countries with lower sanitary standards, says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety. In some emerging markets, farms growing food for export to the U.S. aren’t inspected at all.

The U.S. will import half of its food by 2030, up from 20 percent today, Doyle says. Bloomberg Markets visited growers in China, Mexico and Vietnam and found unsanitary conditions for produce, fruit and fish exported to the U.S.

Auditors evaluate their clients using standards selected by the companies that pay them, says Mansour Samadpour, owner of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group in Lake Forest Park, Washington, which does testing for the FDA. The auditors sometimes follow a checklist that the company they’re inspecting has helped write.

“If you have a program for adding rat poison to a food, the auditor will ask, ‘Did you add as much as you intended?”’ Samadpour says. “Most won’t ask, ‘Why the hell are we adding poison?”’

Not only has the government outsourced auditing to the food industry; the auditors themselves often outsource their vetting to independent contractors — people over whom they don’t have direct management control.

While Primus Labs declined to comment directly for this story, it did supply a response from its law firm, Kaufman Borgeest & Ryan LLP in New York. Auditors, the statement says, serve at the pleasure of their clients and cannot go beyond what they are asked to do.

“Third-party auditing will continue to be as effective as those requiring the audits (buyers/suppliers) and the audited suppliers make them,” the law firm writes. James Markus, a lawyer representing Jensen, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

From the outset, the FDA lacked the resources to inspect all of the country’s food producers.

The food industry moved to fill that vacuum with private auditors in the 1990s. Danone SA (BN), Kraft, Wal-Mart and other companies created the Paris-based Global Food Safety Initiative in 2000 to write guidelines for third-party auditors.

The program, whose vice chairman is Frank Yiannas, Wal- Mart’s vice president for safety, requires companies to be audited once a year. It doesn’t mandate testing for pathogens. In 60 manufacturing plants, Wal-Mart suppliers reported a third fewer recalls in the two years after adopting GFSI standards, Yiannas says.

In some cases, companies use their own auditors to check suppliers. In 2002 and 2006, Nestle USA, a subsidiary of Vevey, Switzerland-based Nestle SA (NESN), refused to use Peanut Corp. of America as a supplier. Nestle inspectors found rodent carcasses and pigeons in Peanut Corp.’s Plainview, Texas, plant.

Nestle’s rejection didn’t stop Lynchburg, Virginia-based Peanut Corp. from doing business with other customers or seeking approval from third-party auditors. In 2008, AIB International auditor Eugene Hatfield gave Peanut Corp.’s Blakely, Georgia, plant a “superior” rating.

And there’s a whole lot more. Our take on all this is below:


Food Control

D.A. Powell, S. Erdozain, C. Dodd, R. Costa, K. Morley, B.J. Chapman


Internal and external food safety audits are conducted to assess the safety and quality of food including on-farm production, manufacturing practices, sanitation, and hygiene. Some auditors are direct stakeholders that are employed by food establishments to conduct internal audits, while other auditors may represent the interests of a second-party purchaser or a third-party auditing agency. Some buyers conduct their own audits or additional testing, while some buyers trust the results of third-party audits or inspections. Third-party auditors, however, use various food safety audit standards and most do not have a vested interest in the products being sold. Audits are conducted under a proprietary standard, while food safety inspections are generally conducted within a legal framework. There have been many foodborne illness outbreaks linked to food processors that have passed third-party audits and inspections, raising questions about the utility of both. Supporters argue third-party audits are a way to ensure food safety in an era of dwindling economic resources. Critics contend that while external audits and inspections can be a valuable tool to help ensure safe food, such activities represent only a snapshot in time. This paper identifies limitations of food safety inspections and audits and provides recommendations for strengthening the system, based on developing a strong food safety culture, including risk-based verification steps, throughout the food safety system.

E. coli butcher ‘sold rotten meat for years,’ were the inspectors asleep

Will Brits have a ‘stiff upper lip’ about this food safety crap?

The Independent reports that the butcher at the centre of a fatal E.coli outbreak which claimed the life of a five-year-old boy sold rotten meat for years before the tragedy, an inquest heard today.

Mason Jones, of Deri, near Bargoed, lost his life to the deadly food poisoning bug which struck 44 schools in the South Wales valleys.

The outbreak, in September 2005, had become the second biggest to hit the UK by the time it ran its course.

Mason’s mother Sharon Mills sobbed repeatedly today at the inquest into his death in Newport.

The coroner’s court also got an insight into chronically lax hygiene practices at the butcher business which triggered the outbreak.

John Tudor and Son, based at Bridgend Industrial Estate, supplied meat to dozens of schools and residential homes for the elderly.

Company boss and owner William John Tudor, 58, of Cowbridge, South Wales, was jailed for one year at Cardiff Crown Court in September 2007.

Tudor admitted six counts of placing unsafe food on the market and one of failing to protect food against the risk of contamination.

The inquest today heard he habitually lied to the authorities about his practices and falsified records – two months at a time.

His underhand practices were so habitual he literally used to pass off mutton as lamb to his customers.

Detective Superintendent Paul Burke headed a criminal inquiry after the firm was pinpointed as the source of the outbreak.

He said staff at the firm were interviewed about hygiene standards during the inquiry.

"A number of people told me in interview about meat that was smelling or poor and when brought to Mr Tudor’s attention they were told to put it in the faggots," he said.

"When meat was turning yellow they were told to ‘mince it up’ and put it in the faggots."

The idea being that because faggots were spicy they would hide the taste of the meat.

He added: "Mutton was literally passed off as lamb."

The firm would buy frozen New Zealand mutton and sell it on to customers as Welsh lamb.

False batch numbers linking it to a legitimate farm in Abergavenny were used to hide its origin.

He said that according to staff at the firm, disregard for hygiene rules had gone on for years.

It was not known whether any of the affected schools ever received the faggots or mutton.

Equally, it was not possible to tell whether the factory had caused other E. coli or food poisoning outbreaks in the past.

He said Tudor was well aware of safe hygiene practice because he had successfully sat a grade three hygiene diploma in 2002.

But some staff members were found to have never attended even basic hygiene courses, despite the need to do so.

It was also found his factory’s only vacuum packing machine was "not fit for purpose" and was used for both raw and cooked meats.

A "dirty old brush and container of water" was used to clean the machine between different users; often it was not cleaned at all.

Cooked and raw meats were stored together and decomposing meat was discovered in a fridge section at the factory.

Meat seized from the operation was found to contain an identical E. coli O157 strain as the one that killed Mason.

The same strain was found at a Welsh farm where the meat originated and an abattoir where Tudor bought the meat.

Mr Burke stressed that a certain percentage of healthy cattle carry the strain of E.coli without harm to them.

But the fact it could prove deadly to people, particularly children and elderly, underlined why basic hygiene was necessary.

Salmonella in eggs is not new; what have auditors, inspectors and buyers been doing

Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports that the salmonella-in-Wright and Hillandale-eggs outbreak that has sickened at least 1,470 in the U.S. left officials at Costco Wholesale Corp. scratching their heads. How had inspectors for Costco, who looked over the northeast Iowa farm where the chain bought eggs, not noticed the rodent holes in the henhouses?

Craig Wilson, who oversees food safety for Costco, said, "There are a lot of guys going, ‘Hey, wait a minute. They’re finding stuff and our guys were there and they didn’t see it.’ "

Critics – and I was one of them — say many food-safety audits are designed to tell companies paying for them what they want to hear. The defunct Peanut Corp. of America had a glowing food safety audit from an outside firm before a 2008 salmonella outbreak in peanut butter that killed nine people and sickened more than 700.

U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors also missed the problems at Hillandale as well as at Wright County Egg, a producer that recalled 380 million eggs and supplied Hillandale with hens and feed.

The USDA employees, whose main job is to grade eggs on their condition and catch defects, don’t check henhouses or look into farms’ salmonella-prevention programs, a job the USDA leaves to the Food and Drug Administration.

The USDA employees do inspect conditions in packing facilities for companies that request and pay for the service. The packing facilities at Hillandale in West Union and at four more farms operated by Wright County Egg had all been audited by the USDA in 2009 or this year and received stellar marks – grades of 97 to 99 percent.

Several customers of R.W. Sauder Inc., an egg producer in Pennsylvania, have told the company they plan to add salmonella-prevention measures to their egg specifications, said Paul Sauder, the firm’s president. Those buyers include a large supermarket chain and food service company, whom Sauder declined to name.

Buyers "had the perception that as long as the eggs were USDA-inspected, all eggs were equal. There is renewed awareness now," he said.

Salmonella in eggs is not new.

Restaurant manager eats cockroach to destroy evidence

Consumers, when dining at a food establishment, or opening some food at home, and discovering a foreign object, or something gross, or a cockroach, do not turn the evidence over to the restaurant or the retailer. Call the local health unit. Otherwise, the proof may be gone (at least take a picture with your cell phone, but they can be photoshoped too easily).

Huang Xiaogang and friends were having their meal at a restaurant in Caidian of Wuhan province recently in China.

Huang found a black creature in the bowl of mushrooms and picked it up with his chopsticks.

To his surprise that tiny black thing was a dead cockroach and complained to the restaurant manager, reports the Daily Chilli.

The manager said that the insect had been "sterilised in high temperature" and was not dirty anymore.

Assuring Huang that the insect would not cause any harm to their health, he picked it up and swallowed it.

The manager later told health officers that he was afraid that the customers would demand high compensation that is why he swallowed the cockroach to destroy evidence.

He then waived off Huang’s bill of 570 Yuan.

2 stars, you’re out

The Restaurant and Catering Association (RCA) has welcomed a new food safety rating system for Brisbane businesses.
The Brisbane City Council will use information from its regular audits to rate the city’s 6,000 eateries by the end of the year.
Those with less than two stars will be made to fix problems.
It will not be compulsory for businesses to display their rating but Lord Mayor Campbell Newman says public pressure will force dodgy outlets to lift their game.
"We want to provide some transparency for the public so they know what they’re getting," he said.
Restaurant disclosure gets people talking about food safety, be it a letter grade, smiley face, or stars, people will notice. Same thing happens when Burton Cummings performs, people notice (it’s a Winnipeg thing). Restaurant inspections are merely a snap shot in time and what goes on when the inspector leaves is your best guess.  Running a restaurant is not easy and the last thing a restaurant operator wants to have is a horrible inspection rating. Disclosing information to the public may compel operators to work with health inspectors and develop a relationship to achieve one common goal- less barfing.

Let health refs call potlucks

Four years ago, Brae Surgeoner and Ben Chapman wrote in the Wisconsin State Journal that health inspectors should oversee any commercial potluck or community function to make sure that everyone follows the rules.

Umpires and inspectors alike are not there to control the game, just to ensure it is being played right.

The Patriot-News in Pennsylvania reports
that even though the state capital cafeteria was closed because it was such a dump, legislators, led by Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Beaver, got around to introducing legislation to bring what he calls common sense into the state’s food safety laws.

His bill, Senate Bill 828, would allow nonprofit groups, including church groups, Boy Scouts and youth sports teams, to sell homemade baked goods provided they put the consumer on notice that the food was made in an unlicensed, uninspected kitchen.

The Rev. Michael Greb, the pastor at St. Cecilia’s in Rochester, said he was pleased that something was being done "to take out the controversy over eating dessert" at future Friday fish fries, a fundraising tradition that the 3,000-member parish has held for decades to help keep its doors open.

Greb said he understands the food safety inspectors’ concern, but "these are our own people making these desserts out of their love for community. They weren’t out to hurt anybody. … The [desserts] people bring in notoriously are clean and good, and to imply anything other than that is just ridiculous."

I’ll be ridiculous. Faith aside – and the vast majority of food transactions are based on faith – as a parishoner I would have no idea of the sanitation, handwashing or food safety of the good folks preparing the food. I would want someone – or the threat of someone – to oversee food prep for commercial sale.

The Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports that the Governor’s Food Safety Council voted Wednesday to oppose any efforts to loosen regs on local sales.

Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, said, "The bottom line is I think I should be able to buy good wholesome food from my neighbor without the government interfering."

People know their neighbors and know what they are buying, she said. It also was absurd to regulate non-hazardous breads, jams and pies sold at bake sales and charitable events, she said.

"You’re 19 times more likely to get sick from mass-produced-and-processed food," she added. "I think I have a constitutional right to buy what I want and to feed my family fresh, healthy food."

There is no basis for that statement.

And as Chapman and Surgeoner wrote, Food safety isn’t a game, but having the health umpires around to make sure things are running smoothly isn’t a bad thing.