Monday, October 31, 2011

Auditing and the Food Safety System - Post Listieria-in-Cantaloupe

In the post-analysis of the Listeria outbreak related to cantaloupes, many have questioned how an auditor could have given passing scores to a facility responsible for so many illnesses, especially in light of the FDA audit of that facility during the outbreak investigation.   Face it, when an issue occurs in a facility, those auditors are going to find a lot of issues.

The recent outbreak of Listeria from cantaloupes should become one of those significant events with regard to food safety in the United States.  While this was the first for this pathogen in the produce related item, it certainly was not an issue that defied logic.   In the FDA investigation report, there appears to be a reasonable explanation behind the contamination scenario – product produced in an environment that allowed for the growth of listeria, a system that did not prevent contamination of the food item, and conditions that allowed it to grow on the product.   But its significance was that it is yet another tragedy that demonstrates the problems in our food chain.

As we have seen in other outbreaks, the companies that produced the food had recently passed a food safety audit.  They not only passed it, but passed with high scores.  Cleary, this is an issue.  However, is it right to put a beat-down on this auditor, and put all responsibility on them?

Clearly, it is the responsibility of the company management to ensure the safety of the product.  Companies should know their process better than anyone.  How can you expect an outside auditor, who is unlikely to know everything about every process they encounter, to hold full burden on passing judgment for the safety of a process during a one day audit? 

The problem is that some company decision makers do not know their own processes as well as they should, and often time, they are not willing to spend the time or money to do so.

·        Training – Are people trained in HACCP?  Do they understand the true risks associated with the process and the product?  Do these companies have people on staff trained in food science and technology, or if not, are they willing to hire a consultant with the proper training and experience to perform a real risk assessment? 

·        Verification testing – Do companies do ample testing to ensure the products they make are safe?  Are they testing their equipment to make sure that it is operating as it should?  Are they testing their environment for the presence for hazards that can be associated with the product or process?

·        Validation – Do companies properly validate their processes when they put them in place or make changes?  Do they have scientifically based research to support what they are doing?  Has in-plant testing been done when they commission the process?
Third-party audits are part of the food safety system, but they are by no means the entire system, especially when it comes to verification of food safety of the process.  Currently, third-party audits should provide a snapshot of how well a company is meeting the auditing standard, and hopefully will be able to catch glaring food safety issues.    Granted, with additional training, they will be better able to identify if validation documentation is present for the process and if it appears to make sense, but until these companies are willing to make the effort to truly understanding their process, there will be those companies who experience the ‘unexpected food contamination issue’.

So it is easy to pile-on the food safety auditor or even a government inspector after the fact.  Perhaps we can give them some extra training so they can identify issue better, or have them paid by someone besides the company they are auditing.  But it is important to remember that the company who makes the product is responsible for the safety.  And until that message is received by owners and company presidents who make final decisions for the products and processes, we will continue to face these same issues regardless of who pays for the audit.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Local foods and organic foods face food safety issues too.

While we have known this and have been saying it for some time, it is good  to see the media is communicating this type of information. 

Interesting statement from the article – The FDA has reported at least 20 recalls due to pathogens in organic food in the last two years, while the Agriculture Department, which oversees meat safety, issued a recall of more than 34,000 pounds of organic beef last December due to possible contamination with E. coli.”

Local, organic, natural foods not always safer as many small farms are exempt from laws

By Associated Press, Published: October 25

WASHINGTON — Shoppers nervous about foodborne illnesses may turn to foods produced at smaller farms or labeled “local,” ‘’organic” or “natural” in the hopes that such products are safer. But a small outbreak of salmonella in organic eggs from Minnesota shows that no food is immune to contamination.

While sales for food produced on smaller operations have exploded, partially fueled by a consumer backlash to food produced by larger companies, a new set of food safety challenges has emerged. And small farm operations have been exempted from food safety laws as conservatives, farmers and food-lovers have worried about too much government intervention and regulators have struggled with tight budgets.

The government has traditionally focused on safety at large food operations — including farms, processing plants, and retailers — because they reach the most people. Recent outbreaks in cantaloupe, ground turkey, eggs and peanuts have started at large farms or plants and sickened thousands of people across the country.

“While it’s critical that food processors be regularly inspected, there is no way the Food and Drug Administration would ever have the resources to check every farm in the country, nor are we calling for that,” says Erik Olson, a food safety advocate at the Pew Health Group. “Unfortunately, there are regulatory gaps, with some producers being completely exempt from FDA safeguards.”

The FDA, which oversees the safety of most of the U.S. food supply, often must focus on companies that have the greatest reach. A sweeping new egg rule enacted last year would require most egg producers to do more testing for pathogens. Though the rule will eventually cover more than 99 percent of the country’s egg supply, small farms like Larry Schultz Organic Farm of Owatonna, Minn., would not qualify. That farm issued a recall last week after six cases of salmonella poisoning were linked to the farm’s eggs.

A new food safety law President Barack Obama signed earlier this year exempts some small farms as a result of farmers and local food advocates complaining that creating costly food safety plans could cause some small businesses to go bankrupt. The exemption covers farms of a certain size that sell within a limited distance of their operation.

Food safety advocates unsuccessfully lobbied against the provision, as did the organic industry. Christine Bushway of the Organic Trade Association, which represents large and small producers, says food safety comes down to proper operation of a farm or food company, not its scale.

“How is the farm managed? How much effort is put into food safety?” she asks. “If you don’t have really good management, it doesn’t matter.”

Smaller farms do have some obvious food safety advantages. Owners have more control over what they are producing and often do not ship as far, lessening the chances for contamination in transport. If the farm is organic, an inspector will have to visit the property to certify it is organic and may report to authorities if they see food being produced in an unsafe way. Customers may also be familiar with an operation if it is nearby.

But those checks aren’t fail-safe. The FDA has reported at least 20 recalls due to pathogens in organic food in the last two years, while the Agriculture Department, which oversees meat safety, issued a recall of more than 34,000 pounds of organic beef last December due to possible contamination with E. coli.

Egg safety is equally ambiguous. While many people like to buy cage-free eggs, those chickens may be exposed to bacteria on the grounds where they are roaming.

So what can a consumer do? Experts say to follow the traditional rules, no matter what the variety of food. Cook foods like eggs and meat, and make sure you are scrubbing fruit and cleaning your kitchen well.

Do your part, and hope for the best, the experts say.

“Labels like organic or local don’t translate into necessarily safer products,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “They are capturing different values but not ensuring safety.”

Bushway of the Organic Trade Association says one of the best checks on food safety is the devastating effect a recall or foodborne illness outbreak can have on a company’s bottom line.

“It’s just good business to make sure you are putting the safest products on the market,” she says.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Deadly food bugs a threat to gardens

Dr. LaBorde speaking about garden food safety

Deadly food bugs a threat to gardens     

Daily American

DAN DiPAOLO Daily American Sunday Editor

9:32 p.m. EDT, October 1, 2011

The rising death toll in the cantaloupe listeria outbreak in Colorado has thrown into sharp relief the need for safe food growing, harvesting and processing.

While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is working to determine the exact mechanisms and extent of the outbreak, local and state officials are releasing tips on how home gardeners and canners can avoid foodborne illnesses.

Luke LaBorde, an associate professor of food science at the Pennsylvania State University, said that there a number of resources available for new growers and canners.

“What we’re hearing from the agricultural people is that we have seen an increased interest in backyard gardens and canning,” he said. “Often, it’s a product of the economy when we see an increase like this.”

According to the CDC, the listeria outbreak traced to Jensen Farms has killed 15 people and sickened 84 throughout the nation.

Knowing how pathogens like listeria, E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter get into foods and how they cause sickness is the first step in prevention, said Dr. Stephen Ostroff, the state’s acting physician general and the director of the Bureau of Epidemiology at the Department of Health.

The current outbreak of listeria is unusual because the bacteria is normally found in cheeses, processed meats and dairy products, Ostroff said.

The bacteria thrives in the intestinal tracts of animals and can be passed into food products through poor processing. Another method commonly seen is when cows bearing the bacteria on their udders pass it into the harvested milk.

“That’s why there are so many regulations and tests in the state for farmers producing and selling raw milk. The pasteurization process is designed to eliminate organisms like that,” Ostroff said.

The Colorado outbreak might have been caused by the least common form of listeria transfer — from soil contaminated by feces or other animal products that have been absorbed into the growing fruit.

“That’s something they haven’t determined yet, but are working toward,” he said.

E. coli is commonly found in the feces of cows, other similar animals and even people. The feces can come into contact with food as it is being processed, work it’s way into the water supply or again be absorbed into produce through contaminated soil.

Salmonella is found in the intestines of birds, reptiles and mammals. The butchering process can put the contaminated feces into contact with the meat. In the case of eggs, the bacteria is passed directly into the forming egg from an infected bird.

Illness commonly occurs when raw meats and eggs are undercooked or come into contact with raw fruits and vegetables. Salmonella can also be passed on through improper canning, Ostroff said

Campylobacter is the most commonly identified bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the world, according to the CDC. These bacteria live in the intestines of healthy birds, and most raw poultry meat has bacteria on it.

Eating undercooked chicken, or other food that has been contaminated juice from the bird is the most common source of this infection.

The good news for backyard garden and canning enthusiasts is that a few simple safety procedures will greatly reduce the risk of illness, LaBorde said.

The easiest way to keep you and your family healthy is simply to cook meats and vegetables thoroughly. In the case of ground beef it is best to make sure the internal temperature of the meat reaches 165 degrees before serving.

Keeping meats and vegetables away from each other while preparing the food is also important. “Too many people cut and prepare their food on the same surface,” LaBorde said.

Owning separate cutting boards for meats and vegetables is a smart tactic. In fact, many affordable cutting boards come in different colors, making it easy to maintain separation.

When it comes to gardens, keep animals out. “Keep the garden neat, use fences or discourage animals from foraging there,” he said. That includes pets. Congregating animals can cause soil contamination through feces droppings.

“Also, don’t use any composted animal manure,” he said. “Not only can there be bacteria, but also parasites present,” he said.

When choosing a site for the garden keep in mind that any flooding from nearby water sources can lead to contamination. Plant away from creeks or ponds that can overflow, he said.

“Don’t plant where there’s been a history of flooding,” he said. “When it comes to floodwater, there’s no way of knowing what the crop is being exposed to.”

Floods can bring bacteria, parasites, pesticides, toxic chemicals and a myriad of other harmful substances into contact with your food supply.

“If your garden gets flooded, the best — really, the only course of action — should be to abandon that crop,” LaBorde said.

Finally, wash your hands before picking and the produce before preparation. Dirty hands can contaminate the food during canning and regular cooking.

“There are many resources like our website on food safety. People should always learn as much as possible before going down that road,” he said.

“In some cases we offer courses and demonstrations on how to properly prepare and can food. Contact your local (cooperative) extension to see if they are available in your area.”

For more information, visit online.

Recalls of Romine Lettuce and Organic Grape Tomatoes

Two produce companies are recalling product because they tested positive for a potential pathogen – romaine lettuce for Listeria, and organic grape tomatoes for Salmonella.  No illnesses were reported.

·        True Leaf Farms is expanding its voluntary recall of romaine to include 2,498 cartons of chopped or shredded romaine because of the potential of contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.  Product was delivered to 19 states.

·        Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce is expanding the geographic scope of its voluntary recall of organic grape tomatoes. Although the volume of cases from the original production lot has not changed, the company recognizes the possibility that some customers may have distributed the organic grape tomatoes beyond the original 18 states to include all states in the U.S and Canada.

True Leaf Farms Expands
Voluntary Recall of Bagged, Chopped Romaine

FDA Release 9/29/11

True Leaf Farms

Steve Church

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - September 29, 2011- True Leaf Farms is expanding its voluntary recall of romaine to include 2,498 cartons of chopped or shredded romaine because of the potential of contamination with Listeria monocytogenes. The initial recalled product was shipped between September 12 and 13 to a retail food service distributor in Oregon who further distributed it to at least two additional states, Washington and Idaho.

At the request of the US Food and Drug Administration the recall notification is expanded to cover additional product shipped to wholesale food service distributors in 19 states and Alberta, Canada. The states include Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Vermont. All the romaine affected by this recall has a "use by date" of 9/29/11.

No illnesses related to this finding have been reported.

Listeria monocytogenes is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Although healthy individuals may suffer only short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, Listeria infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women.

The only outlet where the romaine was available for direct consumer purchase was at Unified Grocers, Inc. Cash & Carry Smart Food Service stores in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The product at those outlets was packed in True Leaf Farms cardboard cartons. All bags carry a "use by date" of 9/29/11. This product was labeled as follows:

  • 2# bags, chopped romaine- Bag and box code B256-46438-8

Photos of the label on these bags can be viewed at FDA notified the company that a sample taken as part of a random check from a single bag of chopped romaine tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes. True Leaf Farms is working with FDA to inform consumers of this recall. In addition, the company is working with its food service distribution customers to ensure that other romaine products that may be implicated are pulled from the market.

"We are fully cooperating with the FDA, and we are contacting all of our customers to ensure prompt removal of any product potentially associated with the recall," said Steve Church, True Leaf Farms. "We are committed to conducting this recall quickly and efficiently to reduce any risk to public health."

Anyone who has in their possession the recalled romaine as described above should not consume it, and should either destroy it or call Church Brothers, LLC for product pickup.

Consumers with questions or who need information may call Church Brothers, LLC, the sales agent for True Leaf Farms, at 1-800-799-9475, or may visit www.churchbrothers.com2 for updates.

Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce Expands Possible Distribution Area of Voluntary
Organic Grape Tomato Recall Recall
Still Confined to Original Production Lot

FDA Release 9/28/11 


Mark Munger
619 661-6004 (office)
831 345-6937 (mobile)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - September 28, 2011 - Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce is expanding the geographic scope of its voluntary recall of organic grape tomatoes. Although the volume of cases from the original production lot has not changed, the company recognizes the possibility that some customers may have distributed the organic grape tomatoes beyond the original 18 states. Therefore, the company is extending the recall to all states in the U.S. The recall includes Canada, as initially indicated.

The recall notice is being issued out of an abundance of caution because one clamshell of Limited Edition organic grape tomatoes tested positive for Salmonella in a random sample collected and tested by the United States Department of Agriculture in Michigan.

Salmonella is an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis and arthritis.

All customers who received the organic grape tomatoes directly from the company were notified on September 28 and advised to discard any existing product. No illnesses have been reported in association with this product.

The organic grape tomatoes are sold in 10.5 oz. plastic “clam shell” containers containing UPC code 033383655925, located on the front of the package, below the barcode. The containers also have the words “LIMITED EDITION” and “Product of Mexico” printed on the label. The organic grape tomatoes are also sold in 7 oz. plastic “clam shell” containers with Barcode 20025465, and marketed under the “Fresh & Easy” brand.

The voluntary recall only involves Limited Edition and Fresh & Easy™ labeled organic grape tomatoes and does not involve any other Limited Edition or Fresh & Easy™ branded produce items. Consumers who have any remaining product with UPC code 033383655925 or Barcode 20025465 should not consume it, but should instead discard it. As an added safety measure, retailers are encouraged to check their inventories and store shelves to confirm that product is no longer available for purchase. Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce customer service representatives are contacting retailers to confirm that the recalled product is removed from commerce.

“At Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce our highest priority is the safety and welfare of the consumer. We are committed to the highest standards of food safety and will continue to rigorously pursue the highest food safety levels possible,” said Fred Williamson, President and CEO.

Consumers with questions may contact Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce at 1 (619) 661-6000, Monday-Friday, 8am–5pm pacific time, or email questions to