Broken links in food-safety chain hid peanut plants' risks

The industry watchers

PCA got more than one warning from other companies that its Blakely plant had problems.

•Deibel Labs, which ran more than 1,600 salmonella tests for PCA's Blakely plant from 2004 through 2008, found almost 6% positive. It was so many that Deibel sent PCA's samples to a separate part of its Chicago lab to lessen chances that they'd contaminate other products, Charles Deibel, the firm's president, said in an interview.

For roasted products such as peanuts, a positive rate above 1 in 10,000 would be high, Deibel said. Proper roasting kills salmonella with heat. PCA never asked Deibel to look into the issue, Deibel said.

•Another lab hired by PCA, JLA, based in Georgia, told PCA in 2006 that the Blakely plant hadn't adequately documented that its roasting killed salmonella, according to a letter from JLA to PCA that congressional investigators released. After the outbreak, the FDA noted the same deficiency in its 2009 report.

•Nestlé audited the Blakely plant in 2002 and rejected it as a supplier. Nestlé's audit report said the plant needed a "better understanding of the concept of deep cleaning" and failed to adequately separate unroasted raw peanuts from roasted ones. Having them in the same area could allow bacteria on raw nuts to contaminate roasted ones, a risk known as cross-contamination.

The plant wasn't even close to Nestlé's standards, auditor Richard Hutson said in an interview. Hutson, who now heads quality assurance for several Nestlé divisions, said he shared his concerns with PCA officials at the time, but "they didn't pursue it" further with Nestlé, he says.

After the outbreak, the FDA found problems at the Blakely plant that were similar to those found by Nestlé, including inadequate cleaning and storing of raw and roasted peanuts too close together.

Nestlé also rejected PCA's Texas plant in 2006.

Neither Deibel, JLA nor Nestlé shared their findings with anyone other than PCA, which is common industry practice. Congressional lawmakers don't fault companies for not sharing proprietary data, but some now say that foodmakers' microbiological test results should be reported to regulators.

Had the FDA seen PCA's salmonella test results, it might have detected a problem sooner, said Stephen Sundlof, the FDA's head of its food-safety center, at a congressional hearing in February.

That a lab detected salmonella in PCA products but reported it only to PCA is a practice that "we can't afford to have in our food-safety system," said Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, at the same hearing.

The regulators

The issues noted by Nestlé and JLA, and the frequent salmonella positives found by Deibel, went undetected by regulators. That's part of what Stupak calls a "total systemic breakdown" of the U.S. food-safety system.

The FDA didn't inspect the Blakely plant itself, after its 2001 check, until the outbreak. That's not unusual. The agency's inspection staff is so strapped, it inspects food facilities an average of once every five to 10 years unless they're deemed high risk, which peanut processors were not.

About half the FDA's food inspections are done by state inspectors, whose departments are paid by the FDA to do that work.

After the outbreak, and a 13-day inspection of the Blakely plant in January, the FDA delivered a scathing report. It said the plant didn't clean up after finding salmonella, had poor controls to prevent contamination and had poor design to prevent roof leaks.

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