Food Engineering

Congressional hearings put food processors in the hot seat

April 3, 2009

There's plenty of blame to go around

Should FDA conduct internal plant inspections and have the authority to close down a facility? Can third-party inspectors be relied upon to perform uncompromising food safety audits? Should food processors perform their own evaluations of potential suppliers? These were some of the questions raised at the February 11 and March 19 congressional hearing entitled, “The Salmonella Outbreak: The Role of Industry in Protecting the Nation’s Food Supply.”

Conducted by Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of the Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee, the March hearing brought live testimony from representatives of three companies affected by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) recalls. These were Martin Kanan, president and CEO of King Nut Co.; David Mackay, CEO, Kellogg Co.; and Heather Isely, co-owner, Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets, Inc.

In his opening statement, Stupak noted, while there is no question that PCA covered up positive test results for salmonella, “placing all the blame on PCA would mean that food processors have no responsibility for ensuring the safety of their ingredients.” Stupak’s Committee grilled the processors and retailer on four basic points:

  1. Why did their food safety procedures fail to prevent the contamination of their products?
  2. Should these companies have known or suspected problems with PCA before the outbreak?
  3. Why did none of these companies ask PCA officials to disclose their positive tests for salmonella?
  4. Why did they rely on audits conducted by AIB, a firm that was selected and paid by PCA?

Waxman reiterated comments from FDA’s Director of FSAN Stephen Sundloff, Ph.D., at the February hearing: “Each company in the chain of manufacturing has an obligation to ensure that the ingredients they are using, as well as their final products, are safe for Americans to consume.”

According to Stupak, Kanan stated in written testimony submitted for the March meeting that PCA’s president, Stewart Parnell, had informed King Nut on January 7 that he (Parnell) had no knowledge of any salmonella issues with his products. E-mails made public by the Committee show that Parnell knew there were problems. Yet Parnell did not inform his customers or FDA of any positive test results taken earlier meanwhile PCA carried on its own audits with third-party auditor AIB.

Producing unbiased results may not be possible when working with a third-party auditor. Stupak pointed out that on December 22, 2008, PCA’s auditor gave PCA’s Georgia plant manager, Sammy Lightsey, advance notice of an upcoming inspection via e-mail. He stated: “You lucky guy. I’m your AIB auditor. So we need to get your plant set up for any audit.”

“The result of that audit was a rating of ‘superior,’” said Stupak. “The conclusions were completely different when the auditors were not paid by PCA,” he added.

AIB’s audit was a standard good manufacturing practices (GMP) audit, which costs about $1,000, and is not as thorough as its $20,000-$30,000 Gold Standard audit. While the AIB report on the Blakely, GA, facility dated March 27, 2008 didn’t specifically report microbe contamination, it did cite “improvement needed” in cases of open containers of product. There also were recommendations for paste room hoist maintenance and cleaning and “cleaning and sealing gaps in vertical support beams and open ingredient containers in the peanut butter mixing area.”

The Committee pointed out that Nestlé USA ran two audits on PCA facilities-Blakeley in 2002 and Plainview, TX, in 2006-and found neither facility to be suitable for supplying peanut ingredients for its lines of confection and snack products. These audits were conducted by Nestlé in-house auditing personnel who found rampant rodent infestation and lack of pathogen monitoring.

When asked by the Committee how much it cost Nestlé to run its own audits, Nestlé replied that it did the audits at its own cost, paying normal employee salaries and travel expenses. Its audits lasted a full day, and the cost was about $1,800 per audit.

When asked by the Committee how much Kellogg has lost on its recalls so far, Mackay estimated about $65-70 million. Mackay also advised the panel that Kellogg now is conducting its own audits of suppliers with high-risk ingredients.