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

In 2008, PCA had more than a month's warning before its AIB audit. Former PCA employees, sanitation director Anne Bristow and Bobby Mallard, said in interviews that the plant was deep-cleaned beforehand.

"Five days later, it would be back to normal," said Mallard, who ran a peanut-roasting line. "It was dirty."

The last AIB audit, done on one day in March 2008, found few problems. "Excellent cooperation was received by the writer," wrote Hatfield in the report. "On some occasions, the items were immediately corrected."

AIB refused an interview request but defends its audits on its website. It says Hatfield had inspected 200 peanut facilities in his career and did a PCA check that was so detailed he found beetles behind duct tape.

AIB also says the Blakely plant ran for months without a manager in mid-2008, providing ample time for it to deteriorate between AIB's audit and the FDA's January 2009 inspection.

AIB also draws criticism from a former food-industry official. Its audit of PCA was "superficial," said Jim Lugg, former food-safety chief for bagged salad maker Fresh Express, who reviewed AIB's audit of PCA at USA TODAY's request.

One example of "shallow treatment of a big issue," Lugg says, is that the audit notes that PCA had a written program to evaluate suppliers and had an approved list. But AIB did no further checking of the suppliers. Years ago, Fresh Express stopped using AIB audits because it found them inadequate, he adds.

Lugg also questions why another audit firm ranked the PCA plant so high even though the auditor noted many problems.

In April 2008, NSF Cook & Thurber inspected the Blakely plant for a client, which it says wasn't PCA. The audit found so many "minor" deficiencies at the plant — including use of tape — that the plant ranked in the bottom 6% of audits done by NSF last year, NSF said in a statement, adding that it stood "100% behind" the audit.

Still, NSF gave the plant an "opportunity for improvement" rating on food safety and quality, just below the "acceptable-excellent" rating. Lugg says that rating appears too high, given the concerns noted in the audit, including criticisms of the plant's condition, sanitation and pest control.

"The whole idea (of third-party audits) isn't working," says former FDA official Hubbard. "The inspectors are either telling the client what they want to hear, or they're doing a perfunctory audit, or they're poorly trained."

Kellogg, while defending its oversight of PCA, now says it will do its own inspections of high-risk suppliers. It spent less than $20 million on PCA products. Its cracker recall will cost up to $70 million, Mackay testified.

Many companies need to do more due diligence on suppliers, food-safety experts say. "There needs to be a revolution in the supply chain," says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety.

The end result

Since the recall, Parnell has been portrayed by congressional lawmakers as a man most concerned with getting product out the door.

Former employees also say too little was spent on the Blakely plant. "It was production, production, production," says Mallard. "Then clean for 15 minutes."

"I'd tell Stewart that this needs to be changed right away," Bristow says. "He'd say, 'We'll get on it.' It wasn't done."

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