Food safety failures often follow breakdown in best
Heeding warning signs,
following good practices key to preventing dangerous contamination of
nation's food supply
| Tribune reporter
July 26, 2009
When food-safety inspectors called on Panera
Bread Co.'s Chicago dough plant earlier this year, they found a
host of manufacturing deficiencies.
For instance, a worker was spotted welding near a batch of bread dough -- a
contamination risk -- while some dough was observed in dirty containers.
Panera's records also indicated that in just over a year, the Chicago plant,
which makes bread dough for 124 outlets in four states, fielded 10 complaints
from consumers who had found foreign objects, mostly metal, in their food,
including a washer discovered in a whole-grain bagel.
Nobody got sick or hurt from Panera's miscues, nor did they cause the firm to
be fined or penalized. Panera, a fast-growing restaurant chain based near St.
Louis, says it fixed the problems in Chicago and is bolstering safety
practices nationwide in the wake of what inspectors found here.
What happened at Panera offers a window on the crucial but little-known
interactions of food companies and government inspectors at a time when a
proliferating number of dangerous contamination incidents has raised
questions about the safety of the food system.
Most times inspections go off without a hitch.
The issues at Panera's Chicago facility, as well as recent food safety
incidents involving a Chicago tortilla factory and a suburban Chicago-based
cream-cheese producer, provide a lesson about what can happen -- and what
should happen -- when problems are discovered, experts say.
The lesson is: Deviations from good manufacturing practices, which are at
issue at Panera's plant, often are at the heart of food-safety fiascoes.
Companies either learn from the errors, as Panera said it did, or the risk
increases that the next incident will be more serious.
"It's multiple little failures that add up; these are warning
signs," said Doug Powell, a food safety expert at Kansas State
Martin Cole, who heads the Illinois Institute of Technology's National
Center for Food Safety and Technology agreed, adding such failures are
"fairly common, I'm afraid."
Data from the Food and Drug Administration bears that out. Safety inspectors
found deviations from good food manufacturing practices in 30 percent of the
16,546 inspections done in the agency's last fiscal year.
The public tends to only hear about inspections, or lack of them, when
something turns terribly wrong, such as a potentially deadly outbreak of E. coli.
Just last month, Nestle USA recalled refrigerated cookie dough after
regulators found evidence of E. coli in a production sample. This spring, Northfield-based Kraft
Foods detected salmonella
in pistachios from a California
supplier, prompting a recall of products made from that nut.
In another high-profile incident, federal authorities say that Georgia-based
Peanut Corporation of America knowingly
shipped tainted peanuts, which were linked to more than 900 salmonella
illnesses and nine deaths last fall and winter.
It's critical for companies to address warning signs about safety before they
can morph into bigger problems, food experts say. An FDA inspection is all
about finding those warning signs, and then it's up to a company to heed
If they don't, the FDA can take further action, including pushing a company
to temporarily stop production, a relatively rare move. Still, it has
happened twice locally in the past 15 months, first at Morton
Foods and then at Chicago-based Del Rey Tortilleria.
It was 2004 when inspectors first pointed out safety issues in Lifeway's
seafood cream-cheese operations in Skokie
and Philadelphia. But the problems persisted:
Labels didn't disclose food allergens and other information; the company
didn't have an adequate seafood safety plan; and it failed to document that
it monitored certain sanitation conditions, according to the FDA.
In May 2008, Lifeway signed a consent decree with the FDA, temporarily
shutting down cream-cheese production until the company was in compliance
with food-safety laws. By then, the company was no longer making cream cheese
in Skokie. Lifeway says it made the fixes within a day, and it resumed
cream-cheese production in Philadelphia.
At Del Rey's Northwest Side plant, the FDA earlier this year claimed that the
tortilla-maker failed to correct sanitary violations observed in six
inspections going back to 2003, and said it had an extensive history of
violating "good manufacturing practices" -- FDA guidelines aimed at
The FDA also noted Del Rey's tortillas were associated with several outbreaks
of gastrointestinal illness in school children, resulting in a product
recall. Del Rey signed a consent decree with the FDA in March, temporarily
shutting down its soft-flour-tortilla production line. Production resumed
about six weeks later, a lawyer for Del Rey said.
The problems at Del Rey and Lifeway became public when the FDA
issued formal warnings to each company and then took further action.
Most of the time, though, regulators tend to release the results of safety
inspections only for well-publicized breakdowns, like at Peanut Corp., or
simply when they're asked to. For instance, in Panera's case, state
inspectors supplied the Tribune with the results of Panera's inspections as a
result of a Freedom of Information Act request.
Panera is a publicly-traded chain, known for sandwiches, salads and a
fresh-and-healthy image. It has grown rapidly, its sales doubling to $1.3
billion last year from 2005.
Mark Borland, Panera's chief supply chain officer, acknowledged that such
fast growth could increase the chance for safety errors. But "safety has
always been our first priority," Borland said "We are really proud
of our food-safety record. As for our Chicago facility, we didn't live up to
The plant is one of 20 Panera facilities that makes dough for
the company's more than 1,200 restaurants. Food-safety inspectors examined it
in November 2005 and found "no objectionable conditions,"
inspection records indicate. That wasn't the case earlier this year.
On Feb. 26, an inspector from the Illinois Department of Public Health
visited the plant for a routine, unannounced inspection. It is a common
arrangement for the state to do safety inspections for the FDA.
The state inspector, accompanied by an FDA investigator who was auditing the
state's work, found multiple deviations from good manufacturing practices.
Some needed to be corrected immediately. Because a worker was seen welding
without adequate protection near a batch of dough, safety inspectors ordered
the dough immediately destroyed, inspection documents say.
More dough -- a total of 1,800 pounds -- was ordered destroyed because it was
sitting in coolers where inspectors spotted standing and dripping water.
Water can be a breeding ground for bacteria, which in turn can contaminate
food, food-safety experts say. The threat of contamination, however, is lower
for a product like bread dough because baking kills bacteria.
Borland said the problem was caused by a small leak in an
"atomizer," which pumps moisture into the air to keep dough from
drying out. The leak was quickly fixed, he said.
During a second examination in March, inspectors also reviewed the plant's
log of customer complaints, the result of two complaints the FDA had received
in 2008 from Panera customers who had found metal fragments in tomato basil
The log showed 10 foreign-object complaints between Feb. 15, 2008 and March
3, 2009, an FDA report said. For instance, metal shards were found in a
turkey bravo sandwich, and a metal shaving was found in a bread bowl.
Panera "failed to take effective measures to protect against the inclusion
of metal and extraneous material in food," the FDA report said. A memo
from a state safety inspector said possible causes included welding done in
proximity to exposed dough, and metal dough trays and tables that lacked
smooth seams or contained metal fasteners like washers.
Borland noted that since the Chicago plant produces 54 million dough items
annually, the company fielded only 10 complaints for every 5.4 million units.
But he acknowledged that even one complaint is "unacceptable."
The company is testing whether it's feasible to use dough trays made from
plastic, Borland said. For now, it plans to install metal detectors, which
are commonly used in the baking industry. The detectors, placed at the end of
the doughmaking line, signal an alarm if metal is found, and production is
then halted. Three metal detectors, each costing about $30,000, are expected
to be installed at the Chicago plant within 15 to 30 days. After seeing how
the metal detectors work in Chicago, Panera plans to install them in its
other dough production plants, Borland said.
The company has found metal and plastic objects in bread that originated at
other dough plants, but not nearly to the extent as in Chicago, he said.
Panera's Chicago woes prompted the company to "rethink how we can do
[safety] even better," Borland said.
He wants to set up a "certification" program for dough plant
employees so they can better internalize good manufacturing practices. They
already receive training on such methods, but with a certification program
they would be tested, and test scores could affect their employment or pay at
Panera, he said.
Also, Borland plans to change how Panera does third-party safety audits. Like
many companies, Panera hires outside firms to conduct such audits. Currently,
Panera's plants receive 24-hours notice, but Borland said the firm will
switch to unannounced audits.
Panera has addressed all 15 of the issues brought up by the FDA after the
March inspection, Borland said, adding that the company's relations with the FDA
haven't been adversarial.
An FDA spokeswoman said the file is closed, meaning Panera took action to fix
Debris in the dough
Complaints center on metal, plastic pieces. PAGE 2