CHATTANOOGA, TENN. — Ripples have spread further in the aftermath of a late April wheat flour recall because of the trace presence of peanuts. Numerous resultant food product recalls last week were issued by some of the largest U.S. consumer packaged foods companies, including Kellogg Co., Mars Chocolate North America and Frito-Lay North America.
All the finished product recalls emanated from a single flour recall issued in late April by Grain Craft. As the episode has unfolded, Grain Craft and other milling companies have adopted new procedures to prevent a recurrence of the disruptive event.
Chattanooga-based Grain Craft notified the Food and Drug Administration on April 26 that sampling by a customer discovered peanut traces in cookies.
“Subsequent analysis revealed the source of the peanut residue to be its soft red winter wheat flour,” the F.D.A. said. “Afterward, Grain Craft analyzed additional samples of the flour and encountered mixed results, with some samples testing positive and others testing negative. As a result, in consultation with the F.D.A., Grain Craft issued a recall of flour that could have contained traces of peanut. In the days the followed, F.D.A. investigators did not find peanuts in Grain Craft flour samples.”
Other companies affected by the recall included Armour-Eckrich Meats L.L.C., CSM Bakery North America and some of its customers, as well as Hostess Brands L.L.C. CSM customers issuing recalls included Safeway Inc.; Cinnabon, Inc.; Bakery Express of Southern California L.L.C.; Glenn Wayne Wholesale Bakery; Old Home Kitchens — Benson’s Bakery Inc.; and Chick-fil-A, Inc. The CSM recalls were issued and posted on the F.D.A. web site beginning April 26.
Two illnesses have been reported because of the presence of peanuts in products associated with the recalls, both children who consumed Hostess cakes. People with an allergy or severe sensitivity to peanut are at risk of a serious or life-threatening allergic reaction if they consume products containing peanuts. In the case of certain of the food product recalls, the companies involved, citing the F.D.A., said peanut content of the affected products was so low that even individuals with peanut allergies were unlikely to be sickened.
While most of the recalled food products had been distributed in the United States, one food company issued recalls of items that had been distributed as far away as Colombia, the Bahamas and Taiwan.
Grain Craft said its focus since the episode began has been to eliminate the issue from the company’s supply chain and to work in consultation with its customers.
“When Grain Craft eliminated the issue in our supply chain, we immediately turned our focus to help our customers as they assessed next steps, both internally and in cooperation with F.D.A.,” the company said. “The regulatory process for a market recall is complex and takes time. As our customers and the F.D.A. determined a recall was necessary, it was initiated. While that process has taken many weeks, the timeline does not reflect an ongoing issue with Grain Craft’s products or supply chain as we eliminated the issue on April 30. Grain Craft continues to provide safe, quality flour to our customers across the country.”
The time spread between the initial recall and the latest, spanning a period of several weeks, reflected work food companies were doing to determine the need to take action. While the food recalls because of the undeclared presence of peanuts in flour are unprecedented, food recalls more generally are anything but rare. In the first half of June alone, 42 other food recalls were posted on the F.D.A. web site, affecting companies such as Kashi Co. (Kellogg), Quaker Oats, Post Holdings, The Hershey Co., Herr Foods Inc. and Publix Super Markets. While most of the recalls were because of the presence of Listeria monocytogenes, undeclared soy, eggs, milk and fish also triggered recalls. While flour-related recalls are rare, the Grain Craft incident occurred nearly the same time as an unrelated General Mills, Inc. recall May 31 of family flour under the Gold Medal and other brand names because of possible E. coli contamination.
Because no specific rules guide the incidental presence of peanuts in grain (peanuts are considered foreign material, subject to the same limits as other farm commodities), the presence of peanuts in flour and the large number of product recalls may raise questions in connection with grain standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, prospective rules that are part of the Food Safety Modernization Act and guidelines from the F.D.A. In 2013, a research study found 63% of wheat flour samples contain traces of soy, another allergen. With the discovery of peanut in flour, a new issue, questions arise over whether the incidence is widespread and what risks are posed. Additionally, industry observers asked whether specific guidelines for the presence of peanuts in the food supply need to be considered.
The ramifications of the recall for the grain and milling industry could be far reaching, said Ricardo Carvajal, an attorney with Hyman, Phelps & McNamara in Washington. Mr. Carvajal counsels the flour milling industry on regulatory affairs.
“Regardless of how this matter is resolved, the F.D.A. apparently intends to interpret preventive controls under FSMA to require industry to address cross-contact with allergens in grain commodities,” he said in early June. “It has the potential to be a real game changer.
“In this regard, F.D.A. views the grain standards as irrelevant. The question is how far industry will be expected to go to eliminate cross contact in the supply chain.”
Preempting F.D.A. action, milling companies over the past two weeks have taken steps to prevent such incidents from recurring.
“Grain Craft identified and eliminated the affected soft red winter wheat in our supply chain as of April 30,” the company said. “We took immediate action to discontinue sourcing the wheat in question by working with our suppliers and transportation providers, and changed our commodity sourcing standards and requirements to eliminate the threat of future cross-contact.”
Grain Craft operates two flour mills in Georgia, a 15,000-cwt (daily capacity) flour mill in Barnesville, and a 4,800-cwt mill in Rome. The Rome facility also includes bakery mix manufacturing capability. Barnesville is about 120 miles southeast of Rome.
Grain Craft identified soft red winter wheat grown in the peanut producing regions of the South as the source of the allergen. The flour milled from the wheat was shipped to numerous customers.
Grain Craft noted the company does not use or produce peanuts or peanut products in any of its mills and also does not produce any consumer products.
“These recent recalls bring to light the challenge of agricultural cross-contact, which is the result of customary methods of growing, harvesting and shipping wheat and other agricultural products,” Grain Craft said. “Grain Craft has taken the lead in driving this industry-wide discussion for our customers and their consumers.”
Other companies have confirmed with Milling & Baking News that new grain handling procedures have been put in place prohibiting the delivery of wheat to a flour mill in a railcar or truck that hauled peanuts in the previous load (Grain Craft added tree nuts to its previous load prohibited list).
Asked why such an episode had never occurred before, one miller replied, “It probably has happened in the past and just wasn’t detected.”
Additional work remains to be done, another prominent milling executive said.
“In the aftermath of this episode, we’re doing a better job of managing the supply chain,” he said. “There is heightened awareness, bringing this matter to the forefront. We need to understand the issue better, and it requires more investigation. The industry needs to be vigilant. We need to take care of our consumers. It will require the milling industry to work together with the government, wheat growers and peanut growers to understand the supply chain a whole lot better.”