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Food Contamination: The Wrongs of Wright County, SanGar & More

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 10:00am
Carrie Ellis, Editor, Chem.Info

This year, the list of food recalls ranges from shell eggs to pet feed to baby formula to black pepper to spinach to ice cream… and that’s not the half of it. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths occur annually in the United States as a result of food-borne illness.

The connection between the two farms is that Wright County Egg supplied chickens and feed to Hillandale Farms, though samples of salmonella were found in the environment at both locations. Hillandale recalled approximately 170 million eggs, whereas Wright County recalled 380 million. After as many as 1,500 cases of salmonella poisoning reported, neither of the companies was permitted to sell shell eggs, unless they were sent to breaker facilities where the eggs could be pasteurized to kill any present salmonella.

As reported on KTLA.com, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors attributed the salmonella to:

  • Live rodents and mice in laying houses at both farms.
  • Structural damage and holes in many locations at both farms, allowing wildlife access.
  • Escaped chickens tracking manure through the houses.
  • Employees not changing clothing properly when moving from one location to another and not sanitizing equipment properly.
  • “Live flies too numerous to count” on egg belts, in the feed and on the eggs themselves at Wright County Egg.
  • Dead and live maggots “too numerous to count” on the manure pit floor in one location at Wright County Egg.
  • Manure piled 4 to 8 feet high in five locations at Wright County Egg, leaning against and pushing open doors that allowed wildlife to enter the laying houses.
  • Non-chicken feathers in a laying house, and wild birds flying in and out of two facilities at Wright County Egg.
  • Manure seeping through the foundation to the outside of the laying houses in 13 locations at Wright County Egg.
  • Rusted holes in feed bins and birds flying over feed bins at Wright County Egg.

The last the public heard, the FDA had vindicated Hillandale on October 15 to the point that it could again ship product, but the jury may still be out on Wright County, with the FDA threatening that the company take action, or prepare its eggs to be seized or the company shut down. In contrast, Hillandale not only cleaned up its act, but also promised to execute more frequent testing for salmonella.

Keeping in mind that salmonella often originates from feces and/or contaminated water, it is easy to note how these egg farms landed themselves in hot water, bringing public sentiment to a boil over food safety. Therefore, there were many paths that these farms could have traveled in order to prevent the salmonella outbreak:

  • Pasteurization, which is essentially the process of heating food to a specific temperature for a predetermined amount of time — enough to decelerate microbial growth, while additionally reducing the amount of bacteria and other microorganisms — then allowing it to cool down.
  • Salmonella and/or microbiological testing, which can include drag or boot swabs (swabbing a building with material that can be thus tested), as well as egg and fecal sampling.
  • Third-party auditing. Although Wright County had a third-party auditor (AIB Intl., which also audited Peanut Corp. of America, the company responsible for sickening hundreds and killing nine with salmonella-contaminated peanuts), the company should have researched its audit provider better, making sure that its experience was to be trusted, its certifications approved and its auditing unbiased.
  • Regular facility maintenance and cleaning. Many of the unsanitary conditions on both farms could have been easily avoided with a regular maintenance plan, especially concerning structural grievances, which helped lead to wildlife access to the laying houses, multiple piles of manure and general uncleanliness.
  • Good manufacturing practices.
  • Lessening Listeria, E. Coli & Other Bacteria.

In October, a food cutting and processing unit by the name of SanGar Produce & Processing Co. continually asserted that state health authorities incorrectly traced listeria to its San Antonio, TX facility. Furthermore, the company accused a state health inspector of potentially contaminating the plant as a result of inappropriate attire, as well as touching surfaces.

Despite the allegations from SanGar, according to the Associated Press (AP), “The state health department traced six of ten known cases of listeriosis during an eight-month period to celery processed at the SanGar plant. The agency shut down the plant and ordered the company to recall all the products that has passed through the plant since January.” The facility also handles lettuce, pineapple and honeydew.

Upon further investigation, inspectors revealed that there were certain sanitation problems at the plant, such as condensation leaking over a food production area. On November 5, it was confirmed. Listeria was discovered in several areas. The FDA cited multiple violations, per an AP article, including failure to:

  • Take necessary precautions to protect against contamination of food and food contact surfaces.
  • Store raw materials in a way that protects against contamination.
  • Take apart equipment as necessary to ensure thorough cleaning.
  • Take effective measures to protect finished food from contamination by raw materials and refuse.
  • Keep foods that can support rapid growth of microorganisms at a temperature that prevents food from becoming adulterated.
  • Provide adequate screening or other protection against pests.

Food Irradiation & Anti-Bacterial Wash

Again, the SanGar anecdote reeks of obvious environmental misdeeds. However, one key way to protect food that hasn’t been aforementioned is food irradiation, a procedure that exposes food to ionizing radiation, thereby killing microorganisms, viruses, bacteria and insects, and slowing spoilage. Although food irradiation is effective due to its ability to damage microorganisms’ DNA, it’s also the very reason some manufacturers worry about what effects it may have on product.

As a matter of fact, just more than 40 countries currently allow food-irradiated products into their markets. Many consumers argue that the safety of food irradiation hasn’t yet been proven, or that it may encourage unsanitary processing practices. However, all companies using this technology are subject to the same regulations as non-users, and the United Nations is pushing for global implementation.

Nonetheless, while food-irradiated microorganisms may die or become infertile, it doesn’t imply that all problems are completely resolved. For example, Abbott was forced to recall several lots of Similac due to beetles and their larvae contaminating product. Had food irradiation been used, it may have killed many of the bugs involved, but their carcasses would still prompt an immediate recall. Similarly, while food irradiation aids in slowing spoilage, it cannot undo what has already been done. Thus, its benefits are somewhat limited.

In an even newer development, Chiquita Brands Intl. has unveiled a new wash to be used to kill bacteria like listeria, E. coli and salmonella on its bagged salads — namely its Fresh Express brand. Currently, the industry standard is rinsing with a chlorine wash; the new rinse, which contains no chlorine, is called FreshRinse.

According to the AP, “CEO Fernando Aguirre says the rinse dramatically improves food safety. Chiquita plans to share the rinse with its competitors. It will launch a campaign early next year to promote the rinse.” FreshRinse has the ability to kill bacteria not only on the greens themselves, but also in the wash water. Chiquita says that it will begin to implement its new rinse by the end of this year or early next year.

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