Federal inspectors told to ignore moldy food at Washington plant

KING 5 Investigators have learned that federal inspectors complained for years about significant food safety violations at a Yakima plant but their superiors didn’t put a stop to it.

"I thought it was terrible because I have never seen anything like that in my life," said Jerry Pierce, a recently retired U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector who was assigned to the Snokist Growers plant in 2008. He said he watched Snokist employees “reprocess” and sell applesauce that belonged in the garbage bin.

“It’s appalling that the company would take those measures just to make a few dollars," said Wendy Alguard, the USDA inspector who worked at Snokist from 2009 until the summer of last year.

Snokist Growers is a century-old cannery that processes and packages 50,000 tons of cherries, apples, pears and plums each year. The inspectors say that leaks in the packaging would cause 300 gallon bags of applesauce to spoil. Snokist would scrape thick mold off the top of the spoiled applesauce, heat-treat the remaining product and then send it down the production line for sale to the public.

The KING 5 Investigators obtained public records showing Snokist reprocessed more than 23,000 gallons of moldy applesauce in the year 2010 alone. Other records show Snokist’s own consultant concluded in 2009 that the mold in applesauce "would not be eliminated by your firm’s thermal process." Records show the company continued selling it to customers.

The inspectors say they repeatedly told their boss about the moldy applesauce.
"I guess they promised my boss they wouldn’t do it again and within a week they were doing it again,” said Pierce.

"I had contact with my boss many times and he basically told me to mind my own business," said Alguard.

It was another government agency that finally put a stop to Snokist’s recycling of fruit products. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came to the Yakima plant after 18 North Carolina school children got sick from eating Snokist applesauce. The FDA determined that packaging defects caused the applesauce to spoil, not reprocessing of moldy applesauce.

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.