Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Certificate is not Enough

A Certificate is Not Enough

By Mary Smith

Whenever there is a consumer safety incident, the first impulse is to require a "Certificate" from the producer or manufacturer. During the uproar over Chinese goods, sparked by tainted toothpaste, adulterated dog food, leaded toys, etc., customers began demanding "No Chinese Origin" certificates. Now we are hearing of requirements for "Salmonella Free Certificates".

A Simplistic Approach to a Complicated Problem

The problem with this approach is threefold. First, a certificate, especially if it is not issued by an impartial third party, cannot always be taken at face value. Often the certificates are faxed or scanned, making alteration easy to do and difficult to detect. Secondly, what is there to guarantee that the certificate in question actually applies to the merchandise it is supposed to certify, if there is no tracking system? The third problem with solving safety issues through certificates is that it is a simplistic approach to a much more complicated question. In the case of the "No Chinese Origin" certificate, can we then assume that there are no problems in facilities in the rest of the world? For that matter, aren't there reputable facilities in China that have nothing in common with the substandard operations that cause the problems?

It was revealed that Peanut Corporation of America had actually issued a certificate stating that the peanuts that caused an enormous and costly recall, not to mention seven deaths, were free from salmonella. In reality, the batch of nuts had received a postitive salmonella reading from one laboratory, and a negative test from another. PCA's customers, who had relied on the certificate, nevertheless became embroiled in a difficult and cumbersome recall that strained resources and weakened consumers confidence.

The scenario was different for Nestle, who actually did inspect the plant. Nestle sent auditors to PCA plants in Georgia and Texas, and found "grossly unsanitary conditions" in both. The company did not do business with PCA, and consequently suffered no harm when the recall took place. Proper due diligence is the wisest course.

According to international food safety expert David Troster*, "Certificates are always open to question, scanners and copiers and unscrupulous people always ready to falsify things. The solution to this problem is to demand that all certificates be obtained from laboratories that have ISO 17025 certification, with a scope that covers the analysis. You need to extend this by including from time to time an audit of the laboratory and its certification. You must also audit your suppliers to see if they provide liquid bactericidal soap, non-perfumed, hot water and disposable towels to dry hands. Watch to see if people do clean their hands. Audit their cleaning methods. There are many factories that only clean when a vistor is coming. These are easily found and should be avoided."

The Need For Industry Standards

By David Rosenthal

At last year's Association of Food Industry Convention, I proposed as a topic for discussion at the Nut and Agricultural section meeting the need to establish protocol to address the increase in rejections due to microbial contaminants in nut products. I also stated that it was necessary to establish documented, industry wide accepted tolerance levels for microbial contaminants in raw nut commodities, and approved methods to reduce pathogens if they are above acceptable levels. At present, there are no established acceptable levels, and no industry wide standards addressing these issues. At that time the prevailing feeling at the AFI was that these were not priority issues, but recent events in the nut industry have made it urgent that ithey be addressed.

New Questions Are Surfacing

Last year at this time no one could have imagined that 700 people would have been sickened and 7 dead as the result of microbial contamination in a nut product. Nor would anyone have thought that just three months later another contaminated nut would be the cause of a massive recall involving products as diverse as energy bars and ice cream. Now questions are surfacing:

"What industry wide standards have been established for accepted microbial tolerance levels for raw imported nut products?"

"What are the accepted and effective kill steps for nuts in order to eliminate dangerous contaminants such as salmonella and e.coli?

Industry standards related to nut products have not historically addressed microbial tolerance levels as it has been widely assumed that the raw nut products would go through additional processing, such as roasting, that would involve a kill step. In recent years many of the nut categories that were traditionally consumed roasted are finding their way into consumer products in their raw form. This being the case, questions arise as to what steps have been taken to ensure that the raw material is within accepted microbial tolerance levels.

Is Testing Enough?

Does testing give us the assurance we need to omit a kill step? And here is the million dollar question "Who is responsible for the kill step when the raw product is distributed directly to consumers???" Many manufacturers have purchased raw imported nut products with the assumption that they were consumer ready from a microbial standpoint. This mindset started to change when some companies started to conduct their own testing, and now, in light of recent incidents, it has become a dangerous assumption.

There is no industry protocol to address what should be done in the event of a confirmed positive for salmonella, but the fact is that an adulterated product cannot be distributed in the USA. The following links provide some guidance:



Testing upon arrival is only one component of a food safety system, but it is not a substitute for the due diligence needed to ensure that the facilities at origin maintain good manufacturing practices. The testing is simply a final verification of the integrity of the process by which the product was manufactured. Therefore proactive measures to ensure responsible sourcing from good facilities overseas is the first step to ensure consistent product quality.

CCC Moves to New Offices

The CCC has moved to new offices. We are now located at 9509 Hull Street Road, Suite D1, Richmond, Virginia. 23236. Our phone and fax numbers remain the same.

*David Troster is a Food Safety Consultant with thirty years experience in many areas of the food and hospitality industries. David's areas of work include:
A practical approach to developing working HACCP systems integrated into your operating system.
Training Directors and Managers in Food Safety.
Supply chain auditing, identifying the hazards and helping you eliminate them.
Factory design.
Advice on European legal requirements.
If you need more details or have a specific question then please e-mail David at troster@netone.com.tr

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Prison Labor - A Major Threat to the Nut Industry

Forced Labor is not Acceptable

Last year we spoke with a prominent representative of the Vietnamese cashew industry who asked us if it would be a problem if prison labor was utilized in cashew processing. Our opinion is that under no circumstances must we, as an industry, tolerate the use of forced or prison labor in the processing of any product, most especially not in products that are to be consumed as food items.
The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, few would condone inhumane working conditions - and in the case of prison labor there is a strong possibility that working conditions would be at the extreme limits of marginality. Indeed, many of these people may not be 'criminals' in the sense that we would understand the term - some are imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs, and have committed no crime.
Secondly, anyone laboring under such extreme conditions could hardly be expected to have concern for the integrity of the products they are processing. In fact, the risk of purposeful contamination or sabotage is significant.

"Soft Terrorism"

The FDA has recognized the possibility of 'soft' bioterrorism, where food products could be discreetly contaminated with microbes that are not particularly life threatening, but their detection could have devastating industry effects. This section of http://rs6.net/tn.jsp?et=1102544653790&s=210&e=001Psdol88E63Qm85GjrPWA00zpUogLFwfZ1eYIf218mbBPca1MhdQ608OYzdyc1smdMnFkwHXejRRQ1O9hOSnMKleEZxS217MFJrnJxIoekC20PfcjFJfg7g== ) explains the possible implications of this form of bioterrorism. But terrorists are not our only threat in the potential contamination of nut products.

One Prisoner's Story - Artificially Opened Pistachios in China

This article decribes the experiences of William Huang, a Chinese man who was arrested and imprisoned for practicing Falung Gong. He was placed in a facility where pistachios were artificially reopened by prisoners. (This is not meant to imply that such a situation was behind the recent pistachio recall - there has been no indication that the pistachios in question had been sent abroad for opening).

Here are some excerpts from his story:

" We had to put the pistachio nuts in water first so the shell became softer-some prisoners used urine for this step," he said. "Our cell was 10 meters squared for 20 prisoners and it doubled as our workshop." The bench they worked on became their bed at night. Huang said he and his cellmates had to pry the shells open for three months between March and June 2001. "We used very big iron pliers to open them ... My hands got blisters, bloody blisters, they were very painful," he said. But he could not stop working or heal his hands.The guards at the 2nd detention center in Zhuhai, China, told them that the pistachio nuts had come from the U.S. They got shipped back to the USA once opened. "We were warned not to use pork oil to help open the nuts because it would absorb bugs and become a problem to export back to the U.S.A,"

A related article proviides further information. Here are some excerpts from the second article:

"William (Kui) Huang is one of the people who spent their youth cutting open the nut shells with pliers. During an interview he told me that he had to work at least sixteen hours a day. The work was done in Cell No. 27 of Zhuhai 2nd Detention Center, which according to Huang was less than twenty square meters in size and was home to over twenty people. The room was full of products and the raw materials that they are made out of. To attend to natural calls one had to climb through these materials to reach the latrine pit in a corner which was not separated from the rest of the room. The room was never cleaned and the air was turbid. Huang witnessed a prisoner dying, not because he was beaten, but because he couldn't stand the environment."
An interview with William Huang can be found on this You Tube

Human Rights Watch - Forced Labor in the Vietnamese Cashew Industry

Unfortunately, there is evidence that in some cases forced labor is being used in cashew processing as well. Here is an excerpt from Human Rights Watch on the use of forced labor in Vietnam:

"More than 400 political and religious prisoners remain behind bars in harsh prison conditions. Prisoners are placed in solitary confinement in dark, unsanitary cells, and there is compelling evidence of torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners, including beatings and electric shock. Credible sources report the use of forced prison labor in a cashew processing facility at Xuan Loc prison, where many political prisoners are imprisoned." (Note that, according to this statement, the cashew processing facility is actually part of the infamous Xuan Loc prison)

We Must Source Responsibly

As the food chain becomes ever more global, it becomes more difficult to know our suppliers, and to monitor the conditions under which our food is produced.

The CCC can help. Please contact David Rosenthal or Mary Smith at 804-745-2848 for further information.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Peanuts, Pistachios...The Roulette Wheel is Spinning

Peanuts, Pistachios....The Roulette Wheel is Spinning

Once again our industry is in the throes of a massive, damaging recall. Details continue to emerge, but the source of the salmonella that contaminated pistachios has not been determined, nor has the full scale of the impact been gauged. Already, consumers are voicing reservations about eating nuts. They are alarmed and in need of reassurance that nuts are a safe food source.

Legislators and the Public are on Alert

This latest incident increases the concerns of legislators such as Rosa De Lauro, Bart Stupak, and John Dingell, who have been on the forefront of the movement for stricter food inspection and tracking requirements. Now that nut products are definitely on these legislators' radar, we MUST address the conditions under which imported nuts, seeds and dehydrated fruits are processed. We have stated that contaminants have been found on pine nuts, pepitas, and brazil nuts. What might be present in some of the nut products that are not routinely tested?

If we continue to ignore these warnings the collective wrath of consumers, retailers, and legislators will be astronomical, and justified. We need to address questions such as whether or not any imported raw nuts should be distributed to consumers without a kill step. Although imported nuts have not yet come up on the hit list we should not use that as a reason to ignore the need for taking proactive measures for responsible sourcing and initiating protocol to address possible microbial contaminants.

Can Imported Nut Facilities Withstand Tough Scrutiny?

I have been criticized by some for speaking out too forcefully in favor of proactive responsible sourcing, but for 12 years, since I visited overseas processors, I feared the day that issues would arise that would shed light on the blatant disregard for food safety practices in many of the overseas processing facilities. The globalization of today's society has made information instantaneously available to everyone. If a consumer safety incident were to arise involving one of our vulnerable commodities, an overseas facility would be investigated with the same zeal as a domestic processing plant.

Although the peanut recall, followed by the pistachio recall, have directed the focus to these specific commodities, we cannot afford to ignore the fact that the problems that caused the contamination occur throughout the nut industry and are even more severe in the case of many imported nuts and seeds where there is a lack of control. How would the scenario unfold if overseas nut processing facilities were subjected to the same scrutiny, vigilance and thoroughness as the domestic processors? Many questions would have to be answered. Keep in mind that although individual companies may carry out their due diligence, the industry will be judged based on the lowest common denominator.

The True Costs of a Recall are Staggering

Although our main concern in today's difficult economy may be our day to day existence, we cannot ignore the big picture. Recently, businesses that were economically healthy and viable have come to an end almost overnight as a result of the overwhelming costs involved in a recall. Keep in mind that it is not just the nut ingredient that needs to be recalled. It is every product that the ingredient is found in, and in many cases the full retail price plus fines will be levied. The amount of recall insurance that would be necessary in order to cover these costs would be staggering. And if, as in the case of the contaminated peanuts, lives are lost, the devastation cannot even be measured in financial terms.

The Challenge for Our Industry Leaders

Years ago, industry leaders paved the way to the future. As recently as a few decades ago, that road was not strewn with the roadblocks and concerns that must be dealt with today. This creates a whole new challenge for those who are trying to navigate through uncharted waters. On a daily basis we receive e-mails, news reports, editorials and articles calling for more regulation of the food importing process, yet the reaction to this has not been proactive. Has this been talked about so much that we've become desensitized ? This is dangerous, because the day that it really happens, when legislation is put in place and the industry is forced to comply, many will be ill prepared. Recent events in the nut industry make this all the more likely to happen, as nuts have certainly moved up on the list of suspect food products.

Responsible Sourcing - The Right Path to Take

We should all be sourcing responsibly because it is the right and moral thing to do. Let's not forget that lives were lost because of the salmonella contamination found in peanut butter. Those who believe that as an industry we can keep our dirty laundry in the closet are mistaken. Until we address these issues by developing and implementing a solution we will continue to be in a very, very vulnerable position. Most of the food legislation that has been proposed to congress tells us what we need to do, but in no way provides us with the means and the "how" to do it. We as an industry must find an acceptable solution that is effective and practical.

How Do We Enforce Responsible Sourcing?

A major industry buyer recently asked "How do we enforce responsible sourcing initiatives like the CCC?" My answer was : "Just insist upon it." The only way that we will be able to develop systems of responsible sourcing is if industry buyers demand it. Consumers need to know that their food products have been sourced responsibly. If buyers ask for responsible sourcing initiatives to be put into action, they will be. If importers demand certification from the overseas facilities they source from, they will get it. When it comes right down to it, if revenue hinges on taking responsibility for what they produce, they will do what they need to in order to make the sale. A monitoring agency with staff that understands the industry needs to be an integral part of this procedure.

The CCC Can Help

The CCC offers a system that addresses exactly what is soon to be be required of our industry. We are not saying that it is the only way to go, but it is a comprehensive, turnkey system which ensures traceability and responsible sourcing. We would be happy to discuss our certification/tracking program, and to provide a demonstration.

Please do not hesitate to contact David Rosenthal or Mary Smith at 804-745-2848.