Food safety failures often follow breakdown in best practices

Source of Article:  http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-sun-food-safety-panera-jul26,0,1314558.story

 

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 University.

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 them.

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 Grove-based Lifeway 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 ensuring safety.

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 expectations."

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 bread.

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 its issues.

Debris in the dough

Complaints center on metal, plastic pieces. PAGE 2

 

 

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