Jail finally possible for (alleged) food safety cheats in US

In Jan. 2009, Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) recalled over 3,900 peanut butter and other peanut-containing products from more than 350 companies after an outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium ultimately sickened 714 people and killed nine across 46 U.S. states and Canada.

The human toll related to a bunch of peanut-paste containing crackers and snacky thingies seems tragically outrageous. How people and PCA.AIB.certificatecorporations responded seems tragically disrespectful to those who got sick and died.

Kellogg was one of the hardest hit food processors that used PCA paste, recalling hundreds of products. In response to the outbreak, then CEO David Mackay told a congressional hearing on March 19, 2009, that PCA had been audited by the American Institute of Baking (AIB) “the most commonly used auditor in the U.S” and received a SUPERIOR rating.

Audits and inspections are never enough; but they are tools in the food safety toolkit that can ultimately create awareness and possibly prevent tragedy. Jail and steep fines are others, ones many other countries are quick to use.

The Justice Department on Thursday alleged that Stewart Parnell, the former owner of Peanut Corp. of America, and other employees engaged in a multiyear conspiracy to hide the fact that many company products were tainted with salmonella.

Prosecutors said the company failed to notify its customers—including several national food companies—when independent lab tests revealed the presence of salmonella. In some cases, company officials fabricated lab results, stating that peanut products were salmonella-free even when tests showed otherwise, or when no tests had been conducted at all, the department said.

The New York Times reports that criminal charges are relatively rare in food-poisoning cases. One of the few examples came in 2000 when the company then known as Sara Lee Foods pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge over selling adulterated meat and paid more than $4.4 million.

The 76-count indictment against the Peanut Corp. owner and employees includes charges for shipment fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

“These defendants cared less about the quality of the food they were providing to the American people and more about the quantity of money they were gathering while disregarding food safety,” said Michael Moore, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia.

The indictment includes details of alleged communications Mr. Parnell had with customers and employees. According to the charges, after one customer notified him that Peanut Corp. products had tested positive for salmonella, Mr. Parnell allegedly stated—falsely—that he was “dumbfounded” by the finding and had never “seen any instance of this.”

In one internal email, Mr. Parnell allegedly told employees they couldn’t waste peanuts. “These are not peanuts you are throwing away every day…IT IS…MONEY THAT WE DO NOT HAVE,” Mr. Parnell allegedly wrote, according to the indictment.

The indictment also charges Michael Parnell, who is Stewart Parnell’s brother and a former supervisor, as well as Samuel Lightsey, a onetime plant operator, with many violations related to the company’s alleged deceptions.

Mary Wilkerson, a former quality-assurance manager, was included in obstruction-of-justice charges. The Justice Department said another y a t il un pilote dans l'avion ?former employee, Daniel Kilgore, has pleaded guilty to several charges.

The company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in early 2009, weeks after the outbreak began.

Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said, “The Department of Justice will not hesitate to pursue any person whose criminal conduct risks the safety of Americans who have done nothing more than eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

In response, attorneys Bill Gust and Tom Bondurant said in a statement “At this point, we will evaluate the charges that have been filed against Mr. Parnell and will prepare for a vigorous defense. There is little doubt that as the facts in this case are revealed, it will become apparent that the FDA was in regular contact with (Peanut Corporation of America) about its food handling policy and was well aware of its salmonella testing protocols.”

Jim Parkman, a lawyer for Lightsey, said nothing in the indictment surprises him and he is eager to defend his client.

“I’m glad it finally came out so we can get this cleared up and clear Sammy’s name,” he said. “We look forward to getting to a trial where we can finish the story.”

Peanut-man Parnell back to work as nut consult

Associated Press reports that Stewart Parnell, former president of the now-bankrupt Peanut Corp. of America whose filthy processing plants were blamed in a salmonella outbreak two years ago that killed nine people and sickened hundreds, is back in the business.

Parnell is working as a consultant to peanut companies as the federal government’s criminal investigation against him has languished for more than 18 months, The Associated Press has learned.

Parnell, who invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before Congress in February 2009, once directed employees to "turn them loose" after samples of peanuts had tested positive for salmonella and then were cleared in a second test, according to e-mails uncovered at the time by congressional investigators.

In an interview with the AP, Parnell expressed exasperation and said he wants the pending criminal investigation resolved — one way or another.

"They just say we’re still investigating," Parnell said. "I feel like I wish they’d come on and do what they’re going to do. I’d like to get this behind me."

Parnell also said he has been directed by his lawyers not to discuss his case with family members of the nine people who died in the salmonella outbreak blamed on his processed peanuts.

"My God, when are we going to hold anyone responsible?" said Jeff Almer, whose mother, Shirley Almer, was the first known death from the outbreak in Minnesota. "So far to this day, nothing’s happened to this man. I think every person in America who was affected by this, every family who lost someone, deserves to hear the truth from this guy."

Nosestretcher alert: After 9 dead, 700 sick from PCA Salmonella, CEO Parnell’s lawyer says ‘I never intentionally harmed anyone’ Victim says ‘I don’t want no peanut butter in my house’

Producers, companies, food service, they are all responsible to serve safe food. Or they’ll get sued.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports today that a year after peanut butter crackers nearly killed him, Claude Ivester still has not fully recovered, and the food safety net remains largely unchanged.

The 74-year-old feels weaker than he did before he contracted salmonella food poisoning. He forgets more. He’s quit his job at a recycling plant. He can’t look at a jar of peanut butter without getting angry.

“I don’t want no peanut butter in my house.”

In Washington, food safety legislation is stuck in Congress, pushed to the Senate back burner by health care.

Meanwhile, criminal investigations into bankrupt Peanut Corp. of America, owner of the plant, and its top executives have produced no charges.

Fireworks, food safety and bad, bad stuf

As the fireworks continue in the background, Amy and I are working in bed and put on a terrible, 1972 movie, 1776, which turns out to be a musical about American Independence starring Ken-The-White-Shadow Howard as Thomas Jefferson and William-I-was-on-St.Elsewhere-and the-voice-of-Kit-on-Knight-Rider Daniels as John Adams.

It’s so bad it reminded me of a song we think Oprah commissioned called, America is Beautiful, written by Canadian David Foster.

Truly bad (below).

Amy and I would like to dedicate this song to Canadians Ben and Dani and Jack, who are enjoying their first Independence Day in the fireworks capital of North Carolina, and ex-pat Katie who is in New Zealand, but had the misfortune of watching this song when it aired on Oprah (always something on in the background).

America’s great, but this song is horrible. So are Americans running around with fireworks, which have been going off for three days. And the food safety … it can be improved.

Calif. pistachio plant knowingly shipped Salmonella-tainted nuts for 6 months

What is it with nut processors that they seemingly think they can ship out Salmonella-infested shit and no one will notice?

First it was Peanut Corporation of America, now Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc. in California knowingly shipped Salmonella-positive nuts for six months.

In an inspection report released this week, FDA officials said Setton first got results in October showing some of its roasted nuts tested positive for salmonella. But, officials say, it didn’t make proper adjustments to its processing procedures and kept shipping out nuts.
 

Audits do not enhance food safety culture

“After the PCA (Peanut Corporation of America) plant, you had all the employees saying [the PCA facility] was a dump. It would have been nice for them to say that before nine people died.”

That’s what I told a student reporter for the Kansas State Collegian in this morning’s issue.

The reporter, Tyler Sharp, has been working on a story about Manhattan’s own American Institute of Baking, the auditor at the center of the PCA Salmonella fiasco, for weeks, and had trouble finding anyone to talk. After a March 6, 2009 article in the N.Y. Times sorta shattered the myth of third-party food safety audits, Tyler figured the homegrown story would be a no-brainer. Except he couldn’t get anyone to talk.

Since the release of the Times article, AIB now requires a minimum of two days or longer to complete an inspection at a food processing facility. AIB has also announced it will change the name of its Good Manufacturing Practices inspection certificates from “Certificate of Achievement” to “Recognition of Achievement.”

Is that like Homer Simpson winning the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence?

I told Tyler, the reporter,

“Third-party food audits, like restaurant inspection, are a snapshot in time. They are not indicative of what happens day in and day out. It doesn’t really tell you much. There are some audits that are OK. It depends on the auditor. My concern is that — and I have done a lot of work with farmers and producers and companies — what you really want is to help people become better with food safety, whereas an audit is just a checklist that penalizes people. That doesn’t necessarily help people get better with food safety.”

The third-party food safety audit scheme that processors and retailers insisted upon is no better than a financial Ponzi scheme. The vast number of facilities and suppliers means audits are required, but people have been replaced by paper. Audits, inspections, training and systems are no substitute for developing a strong food safety culture, farm-to-fork, and marketing food safety directly to consumers rather than the local/natural/organic hucksterism is a way to further reinforce the food safety culture.

Costco, a retail store, which previously limited AIB’s inspections to its bakery vendors, has now instructed suppliers to not use AIB at all.

“The American Institute of Baking is bakery experts,” said R. Craig Wilson, the top safety official at Costco. “But you stick them in a peanut butter plant or in a beef plant, they are stuffed.”

Or as Mansour Samadpour of Seattle says,

“The contributions of third-party audits to food safety is the same as the contribution of mail-order diploma mills to education.”

Third party food safety audits are like mail-order diplomas

Mansour, I couldn’t have said it better myself:

“The contributions of third-party audits to food safety is the same as the contribution of mail-order diploma mills to education,” said Mansour Samadpour, a Seattle consultant who has worked with companies nationwide to improve food safety.

The Ponzi scheme that is third-party food safety audits is starting to collapse. Watching Jon Stewart on the Daily Show last night, the questions he asked to a N.Y. Times reporter about the financial mess could have easily been mapped to the food safety mess (see video below).

The N.Y. Times will report in tomorrow’s editions that the American Institute of Baking auditor who gave the Peanut Corporation of America plant in Georgia a superior rating before the peanut-salmonella shitstorm, was an expert in fresh produce and was not aware that peanuts were readily susceptible to salmonella poisoning — which he was not required to test for anyway. Oh, and PCA paid for the audit which Kelloog’s then blindly accepted.

The auditor even wrote in a Jan. 20 e-mail after the salmonella outbreak became public, that, “I never thought that this bacteria would survive in the peanut butter type environment. What the heck is going on??”

That’s why there’s FSnet and barfblog and hundreds of other food safety resources out there; he never heard of Peter Pan and salmonella in 2007?

In 2007, Keystone Foods, the Pennsylvania plant that makes Veggie Booty, received an “excellent” rating from the American Institute of Baking. But the audit did not extend to ingredient suppliers, including a New Jersey company whose imported spices from China were tainted with salmonella.

“The only thing that matters is productivity,” said Robert A. LaBudde, a food safety expert who has consulted with food companies for 30 years, adding that “you only get in trouble if someone in the media traces it back to you, and that’s rare, like a meteor strike.”

Dr. LaBudde said a sausage plant hired him five years ago to determine the species of bacillus plaguing its meat. But the owner then refused to complete the testing. “I called them ‘anthrax sausages,’ and said they could be killing older people in the state, and still they wouldn’t do it,” he said, declining to name the company.

Before the salmonella outbreak, Costco had rebuffed repeated proposals by the organization to inspect all its food suppliers. “The American Institute of Baking is bakery experts,” said R. Craig Wilson, the top food safety official at Costco. “But you stick them in a peanut butter plant or in a beef plant, they are stuffed.”

Costco, Kraft Foods and Darden Restaurants are among a group of food manufacturers and other companies that use detailed plans to prevent food safety hazards. They also supplement third-party audits with their own inspections and testing of ingredients and plant surfaces for microbes.

Natural Grocers defends itself against salmonella

Founded on the belief that "health should not be expensive," Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage grinds its own peanut butter in-store using only domestic, U.S.D.A. certified organic peanuts.

In a statement addressing Natural Grocers’ connection to the outbreak of salmonella in Peanut Corp. of America peanuts, Executive Vice President and Co-Owner of Vitamin Cottage Heather Isely says,

"We are a relatively small, family-owned company that only sells carefully screened natural and organic products, and we work hard to source our products domestically because we believe in the quality controls in place in this country. We – among others – have been hurt by this one unscrupulous supplier…"

The company may have learned the hard way that natural and organic products are not invincible to foodborne pathogens.

Elsewhere in the statement, Isely says,

"[W]e trusted our government and industry food inspection process, which usually works extraordinarily well."

Since January 30, the fresh ground peanut butter made in Vitamin Cottage stores has contained peanuts from a new supplier, Hampton Farms.

"To further reassure our customers," Isely states, "we are now testing each lot of the new peanut butter stock for salmonella. We are working to find even more ways of keeping our customers safe."

Way to be proactive… now that you have to.

No incentive for a culture of food safety?

In an op-ed published on Marler Blog today titled, The market for peanuts: Why food in the U.S. may never be safe, Denis W. Stearns seemed to list three reasons why there is little economic incentive for producers to make food that is safer than that of any other producer.

Stearns argued that the culture pervading Peanut Corporation of America was a perfect example of those ideas at work.

1. To begin with, there is no such thing as a “free” market for food…

Consumers want safe food, but cannot tell if a food is hazard-free before purchase and therefore cannot discriminately buy only safe brands.

Stearns referred to a New York Times article that described “the array of poor work conditions and safety flaws” hidden behind the plant’s walls that was not perceived in its products until hundreds were sickened.

2. [R]egulations can impose a predictable cost that companies can meet, but need not exceed.

An incident/outbreak linked to one producer can turn consumers off the entire product-category, regardless of how far above and beyond regulations unassociated producers go to ensure safety.

In the same vein, George Akerlof was quoted as saying “there is an incentive for sellers to market poor quality merchandise since the returns for good quality accrue mainly to the entire group…rather than to the individual seller.”

3. Finally, there is the important issue of traceability—or, in the case of the United States, the stunning lack of it.

If it is not likely that an incident/outbreak will be traced back to the producer responsible, the possibility of making a profit from a contaminated food may be greater than the chance they’ll get caught.

Stearns cited e-mails by Peanut Corp. president Stewart Parnell in which he directed that contaminated produce be shipped: "I go thru this about once a week. I will hold my breath …. again."

Stearns closed with this:

[A]t this point, after outbreak after outbreak after outbreak, is it possible that finally, once and for all, the case for the effective regulation of the food industry has been incontestably made?

I can only hope so.

Because until the market for peanuts—and other food—is made to work for the benefit of the public health, the big profits will continue to go to the companies that cheat, cut corners, and do not care.
 

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.