Indiana food manufacturers ramp up safety precautions

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

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.”•


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. Kent's done a good job of putting together some good guests, intelligence and irreverence without the inane chatter of the other two shows. JMV is unlistenable, mostly because he doesn't do his homework and depends on non-sports stuff to keep HIM interested. Query and Shultz is a bit better, but lack of prep in their show certainly is evident. Sterling obviously workes harder than the other shows. We shall see if there is any way for a third signal with very little successful recent history to make it. I always say you have to give a show two years to grow into what it will become...

  2. Lafayette Square, Washington Square should be turned into office parks with office buildings, conversion, no access to the public at all. They should not be shopping malls and should be under tight security and used for professional offices instead of havens for crime. Their only useage is to do this or tear them down and replace them with high rise office parks with secured parking lots so that the crime in the areas is not allowed in. These are prime properties, but must be reused for other uses, professional office conversions with no loitering and no shopping makes sense, otherwise they have become hangouts long ago for gangs, groups of people who have no intent of spending money, and are only there for trouble and possibly crime, shoplifting, etc. I worked summers at SuperX Drugs in Lafayette Square in the 1970s and even then the shrinkage from shoplifting was 10-15 percent. No sense having shopping malls in these areas, they earn no revenue, attract crime, and are a blight on the city. All malls that are not of use should be repurposed or torn down by the city, condemned. One possibility would be to repourpose them as inside college campuses or as community centers, but then again, if the community is high crime, why bother.

  3. Straight No Chaser

  4. Seems the biggest use of TIF is for pet projects that improve Quality Of Life, allegedly, but they ignore other QOL issues that are of a more important and urgent nature. Keep it transparent and try not to get in ready, fire, Aim! mode. You do realize that business the Mayor said might be interested is probably going to want TIF too?

  5. Gary, I'm in complete agreement. The private entity should be required to pay IPL, and, if City parking meters are involved, the parking meter company. I was just pointing out how the poorly-structured parking meter deal affected the car share deal.