Attention to operations more important than robust F.D.A.

by Keith Nunes
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At the center of the Peanut Corporation of America and Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc. recalls appears to be dismal adherence to Good Manufacturing Practices. While much attention is being paid to ways meant to make the Food and Drug Administration a more effective food safety inspection agency than it has been, food manufacturers need to cast an introspective eye toward their own operations and to assess how they may continue to produce consistently safe and wholesome products.

The most egregious example of poorly maintained Good Manufacturing Practices relates to the P.C.A. recall, which is the largest ever. On March 19, during a hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee into the P.C.A. Salmonella outbreak, Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan stated that an audit conducted by Nestle USA of the P.C.A.’s Blakely, Ga., facility in 2002 identified conditions similar to those found by the F.D.A. investigation that followed the food-borne illness outbreak and led to the recall in 2009. That such conditions may have been unaddressed or only half-heartedly dealt with for seven years is disheartening.

The 2002 audit found the facility’s Good Manufacturing Practices related to "housekeeping," sanitation, pest control and bio-security to not be in compliance with Nestle’s standards. Specifically, the auditor documented the identification of rodent excrement as well as live and dead insects within the facility.

Even more importantly, the Nestle auditor noted, "One of the key food safety issues is the handling, roasting and cooling of peanuts and nuts in the same processing areas. Without physical isolation and proper air flow for the roasting operation there remains a potential for microbiological cross contamination."

The processing of raw and roasted product in the same area of its facility, a critical Good Manufacturing Practice failure, appears to have led to the Setton pistachio contamination. David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection at the F.D.A., told the Washington Post the Setton managers were apparently aware there was a Salmonella problem because company testing found the bacteria on roasted nuts. Managers ran those nuts through the roasting process a second time to kill the bacteria before shipping them to customers. They may have used the same machinery to process the reconditioned product as well as raw product.

On April 6, the Grocery Manufacturers Association outlined the association’s food safety reform agenda. The proposal consists of six points, including the requirements that food processors have a food safety plan and a foreign supplier safety plan; an increase in F.D.A.-related spending; the creation of new agricultural standards for fresh fruits and vegetables; adoption of a risk-based inspection approach, and the establishment of mandatory recall authority.

While the latter four items are important, the first two have to be priorities embraced by all food manufacturers. Any effort to improve a company’s food safety efforts begins with steps that take not only a facility’s current operations into consideration, but assesses future opportunities and challenges. The commitment to such an undertaking starts with upper management and includes an investment of money and time to ensure plant personnel are properly trained to handle product and to manage processes.

Both the P.C.A. and Setton recalls underscore the importance of vigilance in the execution of daily tasks within a food manufacturing operation. These food safety events were not caused by more virulent pathogens or a new vector of contamination. They were caused by a lack of adherence to safeguarding basic operations. A more robust F.D.A. may help quell consumer food safety concerns, but attention to Good Manufacturing Practices in daily operations will do much more to ensure attainment of all-important food safety.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, March 31, 2009, starting on Page 11. Click here to search that archive.

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