Lawmakers grill food companies over use of tainted ingredients

Mar 19, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – Members of Congress today grilled executives of three food companies about what role producers have in ensuring that their ingredients are safe, after revealing that Nestle did its own audits of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) facilities in 2002 and 2006 and rejected the company as one of its suppliers.

All three of the companies whose leaders testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce today issued recall notices after the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak strain was suspected and identified in some of their products: King Nut Company, Kellogg, and Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets.

The outbreak, traced to PCA peanut products, has sickened at least 691 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In his opening statement, committee chairman Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., revealed that auditors from Nestle visited PCA's plant in Blakely, Ga., and found that the company didn't have a plan to address hazards such as Salmonella and had areas of the plant that were vulnerable to cross-contamination. Auditors also noted several sanitary problems such as rodent droppings and live and dead insects within the premises.

In 2006, Nestle sent its auditors to PCA's Plainview, Tex., plant where they noted similar problems, Stupak said.

"As a result Nestle USA rejected PCA as a supplier," he said. "We will ask the other companies here today why they did not do the same. If they had, perhaps some of these illnesses and deaths would have been avoided."

Several Congress members pointed to what they see as conflict-of-interest problems with third-party inspections, whereby food processors themselves hire the food safety inspectors to clear their products for sale to manufacturers.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said the same level of diligence in ensuring the use of safe ingredients is not routine across the food industry, and that some place too much reliance on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and accepted industry practices. "They're showing an extraordinary amount of trust in a system that does not work," he said.

David Mackay, chief executive officer of Kellogg, said that since the outbreak the company has implemented new methods of ensuring that food ingredients are safe, such as forming teams to address issues surrounding high-risk ingredients, requiring suppliers to conduct environmental sampling and monitoring, and strengthening food safety training throughout its supply chain.

He said Kellogg previously depended on a combination of third-party audits, certificates of analysis from ingredient suppliers, in-house ingredient testing, and its own assessments of high-risk ingredients. However, Mackay said, "How do you manage for someone who would put consumers at risk?"

Martin Kanan, president and chief executive officer of King Nut Company, told legislators that he felt betrayed by PCA after calling company president Stuart Parnell after he first heard rumors that Minnesota's agriculture department had found the outbreak strain in an open jar of King Nut peanut butter, which had been manufactured by PCA. "I asked him if they had any problems with Salmonella in the past, and he told me no," he said.

Legislators told the company executives that some red flags should have raised suspicions about PCA as a supplier. For example, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said that a previous third-party audit of PCA's Georgia facility had shown that the company had no critical control points. "That audit was telling you that PCA didn't have a plan to kill Salmonella," he told the group.

They also criticized companies for not noticing that PCA's Texas facility was not registered in the state of Texas.

Several food safety enhancements have been raised by experts, such as implementing standards for third-party inspectors, mandating routine testing for high-risk foods, improving traceback procedures, and requiring companies to submit positive microbial findings to the FDA. The three food company executives agreed with most of the suggestions, with some qualifications.

Heather Isley, co-owner of Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets, said she hoped that any requirement to submit positive contaminant findings would be accompanied by a system to alert other companies, particularly small businesses that don't have the extra resources to conduct their own supplier audits. She added that since the outbreak the company is now conducting its own tests on the peanut products it receives.

Mackay added that having the FDA routinely inspect companies that handle high-risk foods would benefit companies of all sizes. "If we could have an FDA inspection that we can all rely on, that would be better for everyone, rather than having everyone duplicate their efforts," he said.

In his opening statement, Mackay said that Kellogg supports the concept of a single food safety authority within the US Department of Health and Human Service (HHS), along with a food safety advisory council to develop science-based food safety policies.

He said Kellogg also recommends that federal officials:

  • Require all food companies to have an FDA-reviewed food safety plan
  • Mandate annual FDA inspections of facilities that produce high-risk products
  • Develop a single standard for inspection with training improvement for inspectors
  • Ensure that the FDA has the right mix of intervention and enforcement authority

Rep. Greg Walden. R-Ore., cautioned legislators not to overreact with too much legislation on the heels of the Salmonella outbreak. "I want to get a balance that gives us as much security as we can, but doesn't blow up the whole system," he said.

See also:

Mar 19 supporting documents for House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing

Feb 11 CIDRAP News story "Company officials silent as lawmakers air Salmonella outbreak"

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