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Indiana food manufacturers ramp up safety precautions

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The peanut-borne salmonella outbreak of 2009 raised awareness about the risk of illness from unlikely sources. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time a seemingly innocuous ingredient made people sick, and prompted recalls.

As of March 11, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was investigating black pepper as the possible source of a salmonella outbreak that had infected 249 people in 44 states. The investigation centered on two East Coast spice distributors, and netted one of their customers in Indianapolis.

Heartland Foods Inc., a catering-supply company, voluntarily recalled bulk containers of coarse-ground black pepper, which may harbor salmonella. The company declined to comment, but managers no doubt hoped their recall would help avert an illness.

For a small or medium-size company, that’s the worst-case scenario, said Richard Linton, director of Purdue University’s Center for Food Safety Engineering, “One case of food-borne illness will shut a company down.”

That’s why most of the 750 processors and distributors under FDA regulation in Indiana go beyond the minimum standards to ensure safety, according to Scott Gilliam, director of the Indiana State Department of Health’s food protection program. The agency carries out inspections on behalf of the FDA.

Beyond that minimum, however, there’s a wide range of steps companies can take. They have discretion in areas such as whether to test batches of finished products, and even whether to hire a separate quality-control manager.

The peanut recall was a wake-up call for the industry, but Gilliam said, “We’re still getting there.”

Ramping up food safety can be costly. Customers with brand names to protect tend to drive higher standards for their suppliers.

It’s also a matter of corporate culture, and that’s not necessarily driven by company size, said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

“There are major companies that in my view do not include food safety at a high enough level in their priorities,” he said.

Jeremy Daugherty, quality assurance manager at Tipton Mills in Columbus, Ind., saw how corporate culture makes a difference after his plant, formerly owned by Big Train Inc., was acquired last year by Buffalo, N.Y.-based Buffalo Blends.

Privately held Buffalo Blends manufactures powdered drink mixes and syrups for various brands. Dry powders are a low-risk food, Daugherty said, but Buffalo Blends requires a sample of every finished batch to be tested for pathogens.

“In the past, if the customer didn’t require it, then we probably wouldn’t send it out for testing because it’s an added cost,” Daugherty said. Finished-product testing adds to the plant’s lab bill, which is at least $1,000 per month, and it means orders have to be finished a week before shipping.

The cost of high standards can be much greater than Daugherty’s lab bill. Really Cool Foods added state-of-the-art food safety features to its $30 million commissary in Cambridge City, co-president Beth McDonald said.

The company, which makes heat-and-eat meals for a national grocery chain, is overseen by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors as well as the FDA.

Among Really Cool Foods’ investments are an on-site microbiology lab and temperature sensors attached to every shipment, which must stay refrigerated from plant to grocery store.

Because its product has a short shelf life, Really Cool Foods can’t afford waiting for a thumbs-up from the lab before shipping.

Yet ready-to-eat produce and meats are a high-risk sector of the industry. That has made the development of rapid-result test kits a hot area for researchers.

Purdue microbiologists and engineers teamed up to develop a laser-based sample reader, which last year was licensed to a startup company for manufacturing. The new device is called Bardot, for “bacteria rapid detection using optical-scanning technology.”

Food science professor Arun Bhunia, who developed Bardot with mechanical engineering professor Dan Hirleman, explained that traditional testing methods require microbiologists to grow bacteria, then extract and identify their DNA, a process that can take 24 hours to one week.

Bhunia said Bardot allows scientists to wave a laser beam over a petri dish of cultured bacteria and identify its contents in five minutes. The total turnaround time would be reduced to 18 to 20 hours, and the cost would drop from the typical $15 per sample to $5 per sample, he said.

“The speed is very important,” Bhunia said. “If you are a food processor, you have a limited shelf life. As soon as you make it, you want to ship it out.”

Backup strategies

Some companies aren’t relying on a single piece of equipment or testing. Elwood-based Red Gold, the country’s second-largest tomato canner, recently entered a high-level certification program that has brought new requirements in several areas. The company had to add quality-assurance personnel, said Tina Anderson, vice president of quality assurance.

Red Gold hopes the globally recognized certification will reassure its customers, which include global grocery companies.

Really Cool Foods is still a small company in terms of revenue, but its product is in grocery stores across the country, McDonald said. That’s why the company performs mock recalls and has invested heavily in record-keeping systems.

“We have complete traceability on our ingredients, down to a spice,” McDonald boasted. “If there was ever any type of issue, we can go back to the source within hours.”

The peanut recall made traceability the issue de jour. More than 2,100 products were affected. The FDA later found that now-bankrupt Peanut Corporation of America knew salmonella was in its products, but didn’t do anything about it.

As of September 2009, FDA-registered companies must report any potential problem to a central database, or risk criminal charges in the event of an outbreak.

Stricter regulation sought

The FDA is seeking legislation to beef up its inspection budget and give it power to make recalls without company consent. Many food processors welcome the potential new regulation.

“It will help to weed out those that take chances and run the edge of being a so-so manufacturer,” said Gary Meade, president and co-owner of Park 100 Foods in Tipton.

Park 100 Foods, which began in northwest Indianapolis, supplies frozen dishes to national restaurant chains and catalog distributors. In January, Park 100 Foods issued its first recall in 34 years. A customer who bought a pot pie through a school fund-raising catalog claimed to have found shirt pins inside it, Meade said.

The company called back the entire batch and ran each pot pie through a metal detector and X-ray machine. The search turned up no more shirt pins, Meade said.

Although the whole effort cost about $50,000, Meade said it was in his company’s best interest.

“You don’t want to be on anyone’s headlines. We can’t afford to put our customer in jeopardy as well.”•

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