Being linked to illnesses is bad business: Snokist files for bankruptcy

Outbreaks happen all the time – some companies survive, others don’t. While employing a good food safety culture where folks in the organization know risks and value implementing safe risk-reduction practices doesn’t guarantee recovery from a crisis, it’s pretty hard to recover if the behavior isn’t there.

Snokist Growers, a 108-year old Washington State-based processing company filed for bankruptcy Wednesday after the fallout of a FDA investigation of illnesses linked to their apple sauce. In May, nine North Carolina kids reported vomiting and nausea after eating Snokist apple sauce. The FDA’s report detailed "nine major food safety violations, including dozens of instances of mold in containers of applesauce and puree that was later reprocessed for consumption."

The FDA also reported leaky fruit containers, pests (including bird feathers), and a lack of hand washing sites at the plant.

According to the Tri-City Herald,

The 108-year-old company cited orders lost in the wake of a critical federal Food and Drug Administration report and inflexibility on the parof its lender.

Snokist employs more than 600 mostly seasonal workers in its food processing plant in Terrace Heights and several warehouses across the Yakima Valley. The cooperative is owned by more than 150 growers who bring in their apples, pears, cherries and plums to be canned or turned into fruit cups, purees and juices.

Because apple and pear production is ending for the season, many employees were already in line to be laid off, said Tina Moss, the company’s local public relations representative from Enigma Marketing.

The company’s financial woes include a debt of almost $73.4 million to more than 2,000 creditors; its total assets are $69.6 million, according to bankruptcy documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

The bankruptcy culminates a series of setbacks for the company, which was founded in 1903 and was once a powerhouse in the Yakima Valley.

As recently as 2002, Snokist employed up to 1,000 people at the peak of harvest season and worked with several hundred growers. But during the past decade, the company has cut employees and benefits and struggled with a massive strike, falling revenue and, most recently, the contamination complaints from the FDA that scared off customers and reduced sales.

Snokist said it determined that a malfunction of the applesauce cans could have caused spoilage and exterior damage. However, company officials at the time stressed that the FDA never established that the applesauce caused the illnesses.


It’s only a little mold: applesauce repackaged by school lunch supplier; 9 kids in NC sickened

JoNel Aleccia of msnbc reports that products recalled earlier this year by a Washington state fruit processor were blamed for illnesses of nine North Carolina children who became sick after eating applesauce at school.

This illnesses are only now being made public because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wrote a letter to the company, Snokist Growers of Yakima, Wash., saying the company cannot ensure the safety of moldy applesauce and fruit puree that has been reconditioned for human consumption.

“Your firm reprocesses moldy applesauce product … using a method that is not effective against all toxic metabolites,” read the FDA letter sent Oct. 20 to Jimmie L. Davis, Snokist’s president. “Several foodborne molds may be hazardous to human health.”

The latest warning came after FDA officials said Snokist failed to adequately address problems identified during a June inspection in which regulators found large, laminated bags of fruit products that were supposed to be sealed and sterile, but instead were broken open and tainted with white, brown, blue, blue-green and black mold.

Some of the compromised bags were bloated and one had “a strong fermented odor,” the report said.

The FDA’s letter identified at least eight instances last year in which Snokist had reprocessed the moldy applesauce into canned goods for human consumption. The inspection report said Snokist documents showed the company had reprocessed mold-contaminated applesauce at least 13 times between January 2008 and May 2011, repackaging food into 15-ounce cans, 106-ounce-cans, 300-gallon bags and 4.2-ounce, single-serve cups.

It’s not clear whether the mold-tainted applesauce went to schools. However, the June inspection followed a voluntary recall of more than 3,300 cases of canned Snokist applesauce in May after North Carolina schoolchildren became mildly ill after eating the fruit product. The recall was blamed on faulty seals on cans. The children have since recovered.

Snokist officials admit that they “rework” some moldy food for future use. But in an e-mail to, company officials said that the contaminated fruit represents only a fraction of the company’s products, that compromised product is typically separated and destroyed, and that any reprocessed food is heat-treated to kill toxins.

“If rework occurs, our thermal process is more than adequate to render the product commercially sterile,” Tina Moss, a company spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.

However, the FDA said the company’s tests are not adequate and that officials must prove they’re testing for other dangerous microbes: “Most mycotoxins are stable compounds that are not destroyed by heat treatment,” the letter said.

Snokist applesauce is also sold at retailers. I wonder who the third-party auditor was?

Birmingham shop fined for selling moldy food and putting shoppers at risk

We were close to Birmingham, U.K. when we visited the statue of my great-great-great grandfather, the Tipton Slasher, and his training facilities – a pub.

If you go to Birmingham, you may want to steer clear of Super Food Ltd in Albert Road, Stechford.

The Birmingham Mail reports that officers form Birmingham City Council’s environmental health visited the premises, run by Mohammed Younis, on four separate occasions between April and November 2009 and found 23 items of food for sale that had gone off, including meat patties, roast turkey breast, hot dogs, yoghurt, pre-packed sliced bacon and chicken and mutton ready-to-eat curries.

The meat patties were visibly moldy in their plastic packaging, and were eight days past their use by date, as were many of the other items.

Younis was charged under Food Labelling Regulations 1996 for “deliberately” selling food that had gone past its expiry date and he was fined £2,000 and told to pay £659 prosecution costs and £15 compensation in a hearing at Birmingham Magistrates’ Court.

The news comes after Bashir Ahmed, owner of Mushtaq’s Ltd in Stratford Road, Sparkhill, was last week fined £4,500 and banned from running a food business after mouse droppings were discovered in his store.

Bribes let tomato vendor sell tainted food

It’s like a bad Lifetime special movie event:

Randall Rahal, a New Jersey businessman who acted as a broker for SK Foods in peddling crappy tomato paste, recounted how he would drop a $100 bill on the floor, then bend to pick it up, saying: “You must have dropped this. Is it yours?”

If the person said yes, Mr. Rahal considered him receptive.

For all the talk of food safety, food is still a commodity that can be traded and bartered with no concern for microbiological consequences, and apparently on the bend-and-snap.

And a lot of the culprits seem housed in the biggest food companies.

As the N.Y. Times reports this morning, Robert Watson, a top ingredient buyer for Kraft Foods, needed $20,000 to pay his taxes. So he called a broker for a California tomato processor that for years had been paying him bribes to get its products into Kraft’s plants.

The check would soon be in the mail, the broker promised. “We’ll have to deduct it out of your commissions as we move forward,” he said, using a euphemism for bribes.

Days later, federal agents descended on Kraft’s offices near Chicago and confronted Mr. Watson. He admitted his role in a bribery scheme that has laid bare a startling vein of corruption in the food industry. And because the scheme also involved millions of pounds of tomato products with high levels of mold or other defects, the case has raised serious questions about how well food manufacturers safeguard the quality of their ingredients.

Over the last 14 months, Mr. Watson and three other purchasing managers, at Frito-Lay, Safeway and B&G Foods, have pleaded guilty to taking bribes. Five people connected to one of the nation’s largest tomato processors, SK Foods, have also admitted taking part in the scheme.

Now, federal prosecutors in California have taken aim at the owner of SK Foods, who they say spearheaded the far-reaching plot. The man, Frederick Scott Salyer, was arrested at Kennedy Airport in New York City on Feb. 4 after getting off a flight from Switzerland. He was indicted last week on racketeering, fraud and obstruction of justice charges.

The scheme, as laid out by federal prosecutors, has two parts. Officials say that Mr. Salyer and others at SK Foods greased the palms of a handful of corporate buyers in exchange for lucrative contracts and confidential information on bids submitted by competitors. This most likely drove up ingredient prices for the big food companies.

In addition, prosecutors say that for years, SK Foods shipped its customers millions of pounds of bulk tomato paste and puree that fell short of basic quality standards — with falsified documentation to mask the problems. Often that meant mold counts so high the sale should have been prohibited under federal law; at other times it involved breaching specifications in the sales contracts, such as acidity levels or the age of the product.

The scope of the tainted shipments was much broader than the bribery scheme, touching more than 55 companies. In some cases, companies detected problems and sent the products back — but in many cases, according to prosecutors, they did not, and the tainted ingredients wound up in food sold to consumers.

Prosecutors said that no one was sickened by the mold-tainted products and that they were not a health risk.

But it gets back to a key point I keep reiterating – companies that rely on outside auditors do themselves a disservice – and put their brand at risk – if they don’t have the in-house food safety expertise to assess whether they’re being fed nonsense or not.

Mold count is fairly basic with tomatoes.

Randy W. Worobo, an associate professor of food microbiology at Cornell University, said companies should learn from the SK Foods case that they must do a better job of monitoring their ingredients.

“There’s been a lot of hype about inferior-quality products being made in China and then sold to the U.S. consumer. This is exactly the same thing, but it’s based in the U.S.”

Kraft, the nation’s largest food manufacturer, appears to have been among the biggest companies skimmed by the bribes. Court papers say that Kraft bought about 230 million pounds of processed tomatoes from SK Foods from 2004 to 2008, as Mr. Watson took $158,000 in bribes.

Michael P. Doyle, the director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, said there had been several cases in recent years in which ingredient suppliers were suspected of falsifying documentation to mask quality or safety faults in foods, especially with imports. He said that should make companies more aggressive in testing, not only to guard against pathogens but also to check quality.

“As a consumer I wouldn’t want to have moldy tomatoes in my tomato ketchup or my tomato products,” Dr. Doyle said.

The Dirt on Mold

When was the last time you opened your fridge and saw this- the mold monster?  Hopefully never, but if you have, you’ve probably experienced some sort of sickness related to eating the food from the fridge.  Mold grows from decomposing organic material, and in addition to a foul order and slime, mold is a great indicator of food going bad.  But food can be decidedly “bad” before the mold fully appears.

Unfortunately the busy life of student has led me to find the mold monster lurking in my fridge on more than one occasion.  CNNHealth gives some great advice to college students this week: “Don’t eat mold.”  Not only is it unappetizing, but molds can cause allergic reactions and respiratory problems as well as produce mycotoxins, poisonous substances that can make you sick.

I’ve definitely never gone as far to intentionally consume mold.  I believe in labeling my leftovers with the date and smelling foods before eating them.  It’s not a foolproof way to avoid food-borne illness from moldy foods, but it’s better than eating leftovers blindly.

CNNHealth goes on to offer additional tips to enjoy a meal from the fridge: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends discarding moldy bread and baked goods, because of their porous texture.
Creamy dairy products like yogurt can easily spread mold and should be discarded. So
ft cheeses with high moisture content — including those that are shredded, sliced, or crumbled — can be contaminated with both mold and bacteria. So throw those away, experts advise.
Hard cheeses can be saved, as long as the mold is cut 1 inch around the spot. Because of the cheese’s hardness, the mold generally cannot penetrate deep into the product.

Mom taught me well, to throw away any bread with the slightest bit of mold, and to keep moldy hard cheese but to cut away the mold. (Within reason of course, I’m talking about cutting off a dime-sized piece of mold, not eating a furry piece of cheese.)  I also try to disinfect my fridge at least every six months.

What if the fridge doesn’t belong to you?  Office or community fridges can be hot spots for spoiled food and moldy surfaces.  The Pittsburg Post-Gazette cites a survey by the American Dietetic Association and ConAgra Foods which “found that 44 percent of office refrigerators are cleaned once a month and 22 percent are cleaned only once or twice a year.”

Clean out your fridge at home with a household kitchen cleaner – preferably something with bleach.  Institute a bi-weekly cleanup day for the office fridge.  These are two terrific ways to lower your risk of contracting a food-borne illness from fridge food.  You can also reference the USDA’s guide on moldy food when deciding what to trash or save.

Also, don’t forget to wash your hands after touching all that mold.

Army colonel tries old C-ration pound cake, doesn’t get botulism

Field rations for soldiers are designed with two primary motives: 1) providing lots of calories and 2) lasting in a combat zone.

For the most part, taste is greatly sacrificed. But retired Army colonel Henry A. Moak, Jr., thought his 40-year-old C-ration can of pound cake was "good."

Moak got the drab olive can as a Marine helicopter pilot off the Vietnamese coast in 1973. He vowed to hang on to it until the day he retired, storing it in a box with other mementos.

"It’s even a little moist," he said, wiping his mouth after downing a handful in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes following a formal retirement ceremony.

Retired Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek, who was the U.S. Army Europe commander when Moak served overseas, took an even bigger piece. "Tastes just like it always did," Mikolashek mumbled with a mouthful of cake as Moak laughed and clapped.

The AP reports,

"Moak said he wasn’t worried about getting sick from any bacteria that may have gotten into the old can, because it looked sealed. But the military discourages eating from old rations.

"’Given the risks … we do everything possible to ensure that overly aged rations are not consumed,’ said Lawrence Levine, a spokesman for the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia.

"Levine named the threats as mold and deadly botulism if the sealing on the food has been broken, which isn’t always visible."

Mold, maybe. Botulism, no; it arises from improper canning initially – or denting later – but not broken seals. (They only open the possibility of contamination to microbes that like air: B. cereus, Lavine…)