Penn State expert points to food-safety lessons from contamination

University Park, Pa. -- As press reports document a history of alleged sanitation lapses and violations in the Georgia plant linked to a nationwide salmonellosis outbreak with tainted peanut butter, a food-safety specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences says there are some clear lessons to be learned by both consumers and food producers.
 
"What happened here is inexcusable," said Martin Bucknavage, food-safety specialist with the Department of Food Science. "Having worked with hundreds of plants over my career, I can say that this is not the norm. I don’t think the people involved with this incident intentionally wanted to make consumers sick, I just think they didn’t know any better. Training is the only way for people to learn right from wrong.
 
"Two elements should be part of any legislation to prevent future occurrences: mandatory food-safety control systems, such as the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (or HACCP) system for all food-processing facilities; and mandatory training, such as is seen with food-service establishments."
 
A nationwide search traced hundreds of cases of food poisoning back to peanut butter manufactured at a Georgia plant owned by Peanut Corporation of America of Lynchburg, Va. An inspection by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revealed numerous food-safety violations within the facility that may have contributed to the contamination. The plant also is reported to have retested product that had been found to contain salmonella bacteria, then shipped the product when a second test came back negative. 
 
"This should not have led to the conclusion that the product was free from salmonella, but that the contaminant was there at a low level," said Bucknavage. "The product should have been held and corrective action taken before resuming production. Plant officials should have followed this with intensive sampling to verify the issue was resolved, but they did not. Rather, they shipped the tainted product and many people became ill."  
 
Regardless of changes to regulations, Bucknavage said the industry should learn several things from this case:
 
-- Worry about the small stuff. "If you are letting dirt and debris exist because you are worried about bigger issues, then it is only a matter of time before this contamination will become one of those bigger issues," he said. "Management and the employees need to be diligent in keeping work areas clean. It must be part of the culture."
 
-- Correct all issues and document those corrective actions taken. Federal and state inspection procedures for food-processing plants often record relatively minor infractions that, while legitimate citations, don't rise to the level of requiring further punitive actions or closure. While there's a temptation to see the citations as "no big deal," Bucknavage said, the current situation with PCA should convince plant managers to correct every infraction immediately.
 
"If deficiencies are showing up repeatedly, then the establishment should be shut down," Bucknavage said. "Federal audit reports are available for public access, including the media. In the court of public opinion, this plant is already guilty because of a host of minor issues, so plant officials must be extra diligent. They should work to keep the establishment -- and thus their record -- clean."
 
-- Don’t rely on inspectors to tell you where your issues are. "Self-inspections or third-party inspections will help resolve issues before an official inspection and will help employees become advocates of maintaining a clean establishment," he said. "More important, it will keep the food safe."
 
-- Train your employees. Employee professional development is one thing that financially strapped companies can reduce to keep costs low. But employees must understand the special risks associated with the food products being made and how those risks are controlled. "They need to understand that even when something looks clean, possibly pathogenic microbes may be present," Bucknavage explained. "They need to be committed to cleaning and sanitizing everything, and verifying that the action has been effective."
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Last Updated November 18, 2010