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.

Peanut Corp. president keeps quiet amidst accusations that he put profits before safety

After e-mails released in today’s U.S. Congressional oversight and investigation subcommittee hearing revealed the sentiments of Peanut Corp. of America’s president, Stewart Parnell, toward the company’s microbial testing, the Associated Press reported,

Parnell sat stiffly, his hands folded in his lap at the witness table, as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., held up a clear jar of his company’s products wrapped in crime scene tape and asked him if he would be willing to eat the food.

"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on advice of my counsel, I respectively decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the U.S. Constitution," Parnell said.

After repeating the statement several times, he was dismissed from the hearing.

Sammy Lightsey, his plant manager also invoked his right not to testify when he appeared alongside Parnell before the subcommittee.

As the hearing opened this morning, the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution reported,

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, admonished company executives sitting in the crowd, saying they could invoke their Fifth Amendment rights not to testify, but that doesn’t protect them from justice if they’re found guilty of wrongdoing.

Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, was quoted as saying, “This company cared more about its financial bottom line than it did about the safety of its customers.”

According to the AP, the president of one company that tested products for Peanut Corp. spoke to the House panel.

Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories Inc., said his company was among those that tested Peanut Corp. of America’s products and notified the Georgia plant that salmonella was found in some of its peanut stock.

"It is not unusual for Deibel Labs or other food testing laboratories to find that samples clients submit do test positive for salmonella and other pathogens, nor is it unusual that clients request that samples be retested," Deibel said. "What is virtually unheard of is for an entity to disregard those results and place potentially contaminated products into the stream of commerce."

Georgia considers forcing plants to disclose positive test results

While Peanut Corp., the state of Georgia, and the federal government come under fire for letting salmonella get into roasted peanuts and those peanuts get into hundreds of products, a debate is stirring on the value of revealing the results of microbial testing.

Doug and Ben want manufacturers to show their results to the public, but Georgia’s Senate Agriculture Committee just wants them to tell the state.

The Associated Press reported two days ago that the Senate Agriculture Committee was discussing a bill that would "require food makers to alert state inspectors within a day if internal tests show a contaminant in a plant."

According to a New York Times article that day,

Dr. Steven M. Solomon, an official in [FDA’s] Office of Regulatory Affairs, said the agency has viewed such disclosures as a “double-edged sword” that might inhibit some companies from testing in the first place.

An AP report yesterday said the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Bulloch, "delayed a vote on the measure until later this week as he waits for more industry response."

Meanwhile, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin urged Congress to adopt similar requirements. He told members of a House food safety panel,

"We could have a strong law in Georgia, but if it’s not followed by Congress, we could find ourselves in a position of driving out business."

History shows that companies caught without a culture of food safety don’t stay in business, anyway. Smart companies know food safety is good business and should be happy to brag about it.

Peanut Corp. president urged shipping tainted nuts

It’s as bad as it gets.

Early reporting from today’s U.S. Congressional oversight and investigation subcommittee hearing where Peanut Corp. of America President Stewart Parnell was forced to appear and is expected to take the Fifth Amendment and not testify, depicts a company focused on profits rather than food safety.

E-mails between Parnell and Sammy Lightsey, manager of the company’s Blakely plant, were released as part of a congressional hearing that started at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

• In one e-mail, Lightsey wrote Parnell discussing positive salmonella tests on its products, but Parnell gave instructions to nonetheless “turn them loose” after getting a negative test result from another testing company.

• In another e-mail, Parnell expressed his concerns over the losing “$$$$$$” due to delays in shipment and costs of testing.

• Parnell in another company-wide e-mail told employees there was no salmonella in its plants, instead accusing the news media of “looking for a news story where there currently isn’t one.”

On Jan. 19, Parnell sent an e-mail to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, pleading with the agency to let it stay in business.

He wrote that company executives “desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money.”

Other revelations underpinning the Salmonella outbreak:

• The Georgia Department of Agriculture conducted two inspections of the company’s Blakely, Ga. plant in 2008, but did not test for salmonella on its own on either occasion — despite an internal agency goal to conduct such tests once a year.

• The company’s largest customers, including Kellogg’s, engaged contractors to conduct audits, but they did not conduct their own salmonella tests.

*The FDA did not test for salmonella at the plant, despite the 2007 salmonella outbreak traced to the Con-Agra plant about 70 miles from Peanut Corp. of America’s Blakely plant.

Texas peanut plant closed after Salmonella possibly found

"It is clear that Peanut Corp. of America is not a producer that companies could — or can — rely on for a safe product.”

That’s what Seattle lawyer Bill Marler said after private lab tests show there may have been salmonella at a second plant operated by PCA in Plainview, Texas.

The Texas Department of Health said in a statement the plant temporarily closed Monday night at the request of health officials after the tests found "the possible presence of salmonella" in some of its products.

The Texas closing comes a day after the FBI raided the company’s plant in Georgia, hauling off boxes and other material. Agents executed search warrants at both the plant and at Peanut Corp.’s headquarters in Lynchburg, Va., according to a senior congressional aide with knowledge of the raids.

Also today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control upped the sick form Salmonella numbers to 600 in 44 states, along with at least eight deaths.

Some retailers slow to pull peanut products; test results need to be public

Shelly Awl, a clerk at a gas station on Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution yesterday,

“It’s so confusing. I wish they would communicate better what is safe and what is not.”

At a gas station in North Fulton, Karan Singh eyed with suspicion a pile of energy bars, cookies and snacks that had been laid at the check-out counter for purchase, telling a customer,

“I don’t think I should sell these to you. These might not be good.”

While many stores — particularly major supermarkets — appear to be keeping up with the recalls, smaller stores seem to be less consistent, according to some spot checks by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The salmonella outbreak linked to a South Georgia peanut-processing plant has spawned one of the largest product recalls in American history. The list of products that are off-limits has risen to 1,550, with new names coming out daily.

However, at Publix stores, spokeswoman Brenda Reid said recall alerts from suppliers and the FDA are immediately e-mailed to stores, which then have three hours to respond that they have removed the recalled item from the shelf. If it’s not accomplished, company managers continue to contact the store and will even send a representative there. District managers also check during their visits, she said.

The recalled item is also logged into the store’s computer, so if a customer finds one, the cashier will be alerted and will not be able to ring it up, Reid said.

Kroger stores are alerting customers who have a Kroger Plus Card of any recalled purchases through automated phone calls.

And in a feature tomorrow, the Journal-Constitution reports federal food regulators describe the 2007 Peter Pan peanut butter salmonella outbreak traced to a Georgia plant in 2007 as “a wake-up call.” But that realization did not lead officials to scrutinize at least one other peanut processor: the Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely.

They didn’t even know the plant made peanut butter.

The FDA first learned of possible salmonella contamination at ConAgra four years ago — two years before officials traced hundreds of illnesses to Peter Pan.

In early 2005, an anonymous tipster told the FDA that ConAgra’s internal testing had detected salmonella in a batch of peanut butter the previous October, agency records show. Company executives confirmed the test results to an FDA inspector but refused to turn over lab reports unless the agency requested them in writing. The inspector left the plant, records show, and never again requested the reports.

Congressional investigators later learned that FDA policy discouraged written document requests. Federal courts, the FDA said, had ruled that if manufacturers turned over material in response to a formal request from the government, those documents could not be used as evidence in a criminal prosecution against them.

But in the vast majority of cases, investigator David Nelson told a House subcommittee in 2007, the FDA pursues neither documents nor criminal charges. Nelson termed the agency’s actions “nonsensical.”

The FDA cited no violations following the 2005 inspection in Sylvester, said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for ConAgra, which is based in Omaha, Neb. Long before the inspector arrived, Childs said, the plant had destroyed the contaminated peanut butter.

This is why when companies claim they test for Salmonella, like in this ad for Jif (upper left, thanks Barb) that ran today, it’s sorta meaningless without some sort of public disclosure or oversight.

Finally, a focus on the ‘fallacy’ of food safety audits

“They called me crazy at Masters and Johnson. But I’ll show them.”
The demented Dr. Bernardo from Woody Allen’s 1972 film, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).

A week ago I asked, with all the recalled products related to Samonella in peanut paste, what problems did the third-party auditors uncover and what was done about such problems?

A few weeks ago, Chapman and I wrote that,

Third-party audits are an incomplete form of verification that provide a limited view of a producer’s facilities and documentation but do not effectively reduce risk. …At some point, folks will figure out that all these outbreaks of foodborne illness – like Salmonella in peanut butter – happened at places that passed so-called independent audits.

Ten years ago, I told the Ontario greenhouse tomato growers they should have their own in-house food safety expertise to help farmers produce safe product and to market the program, with test results, to buyers and consumers.

They said I was crazy.

This morning, the N.Y. Times and USA Today are reporting that Peanut Corporation of America, the Blakely, GA firm at the epicenter of the Salmonella shit storm, had “regular visits and inspections” of its Blakely, Ga., plant in 2008, not only by federal and state regulators but by independent auditors and food safety companies that made “customary unannounced inspections.”

Kellogg’s auditor, the American Institute of Baking checked out Peanut Corp. of America’s Blakely, Ga., plant in 2007 and 2008 and gave it superior ratings both times.

"That’s frightening," says Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

Andrew Martin of the Times writes that,

Peanut Corporation of America’s statement was released as food manufacturers and public health officials tried to determine how so many inspectors missed what some have said were obvious problems at the plant, including improper sanitation procedures, live roaches, mold and slimy residue on floors and equipment.

Kris Charles, a spokeswoman for Kellogg, said,

Had Kellogg known of the problems at the plant that the Food and Drug Administration detailed recently, “we would have discontinued the relationship with P.C.A. immediately and would not have accepted any ingredients from them.”

Jim Munyon, president of AIB International, based in Manhattan, Kan., said the company would not have received a superior rating if his auditors had seen the filth the federal government described.

“It would mean that we didn’t see it on the day we were there. What goes on the rest of the time, we don’t know.”

He did say that AIB wouldn’t see internal test results unless PCA shared them. "They show us only what they want to show us," he says.

Doug Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University, said the salmonella outbreak at Peanut Corporation of America showed the “fallacy” of independent audits, which are commonly used to verify food safety, animal welfare claims and organic production methods. While the intent might be good, he said, the results are usually withheld from the public.

“Companies say they do all this testing. Great. Show us the data. They won’t. Given all the outbreaks, why should we believe them?”


Heck of a job FEMA: Recalled products in emergency food packages

CNN reports that emergency food packages distributed by FEMA in ice-hit Kentucky may contain recalled peanut butter products.

FEMA’s written statement included:

Commercial meals kits manufactured by Red Cloud Food Services Inc., under the Standing Rock label, have been provided to disaster survivors in impacted communities, and these kits may contain peanut butter which is part of the precautionary national recall underway in accordance with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

People who have received commercial meal kits are asked to inspect the kits in their possession and immediately dispose of any peanut butter packets.

A written statement might not be the best way to get this info out to the 200,000+ who are still without power in Kentucky.

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.