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‘Profits First’ Mindset May Hinder Meat Testing

Opinion

I have been known as the “whistleblower” against Peanut Corp. of America, the company responsible for the peanut butter Salmonella outbreak of 2009, which eventually turned into the largest food recall in U.S. history. I worked there as production planner and assistant manager from July 2006 until November 2006, when I left because of personal reasons.

In the years since the Peanut Corp. outbreak, I have spoken at a few universities and worked with groups such as the Government Accountability Project Food Integrity Campaign and STOP Foodborne Illness to spread awareness about how this disaster happened. This has taken a toll on my professional life, as I have been told directly by employers they cannot take a chance on hiring a whistleblower, and I still get accused of doing such things — even at my part-time job now. That’s not to mention the depression and family toll that dealing with such a large public issue takes on someone who was never trained to deal with such issues.

Despite the changes to food safety that have come out of the Peanut Corp. outbreak, there are still problems with the food system I feel must be addressed. As an industry, meat testing labs keep staffing low to win the bid for contracts. An alarming number of corners may be cut to save money, and I fear this contributes to some outbreaks.

 

In addition to working at Peanut Corp., I have also had experience working in a meat testing lab — one that performed testing for one of the largest meat processors in the U.S.. Starting pay for technicians who did the entire testing process was usually just under $10 per hour. To give a sense of the experience some of the technicians had: The person I worked with on the evening shift had a high school diploma but no college education, and her previous experience was working at Burger King.

On some days, this person undertook the entire complex testing process alone from start to finish. This means that people with no science education beyond the high school level were in charge of testing thousands of pounds of meat being sent to consumers. This is not to say that they did not try to do a good job, but what would seem simple to teach someone with a science background was often difficult for her and others with no college education at all.

I fully agree with those who say more testing needs to be done in many areas of our food chain, but we have to recognize that all the testing, monitoring and requirements are meaningless if the lab results are unreliable. And this is why I am sharing my experience — to show you just how poor lab performance can be.

The American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) is one of the organizations that accredit labs. One major A2LA accreditation test I remember involves getting four hotdog samples and knowing that one of them was supposed to test positive for E. coli. These samples were shipped to each of our company’s labs around the country and we were to report back to A2LA with each lab’s test results.

For simplicity, we’ll call the hotdog samples A, B, C, D. Now, usually the director — not a tech (whose qualifications we will look at later) — took over during the accreditation process. Of course, this person had his or her experienced staff take over for the accrediting process.

In the end, for example, a result could come back positive for sample B. Before this was reported to the A2LA, the staff from the other labs in the company would call each other and compare notes to determine which sample identification should be positive. So, if a lab in Texas came up with sample C as positive and everyone else came up with sample B, the Texas lab would know that something was wrong and would promptly redo the process. This was the major part of accreditation and it was routinely compromised in that no results were reported until all notes were compared within the company, which defeated the whole purpose of the process.

More shocking to me was the general company attitude I learned of at a meeting after leaving Peanut Corp. and going to work at this lab. The project managers came to the meeting and asked in an open forum what we thought the most important part of our jobs was.

Being naïve, I responded with “public safety.” Another employee said “accuracy.” But the response from the boss was “No — it is keeping our customer happy,” meaning the meat producer that paid the lab to test its product. He went on to say that getting the results on time — regardless of staffing shortages — was our main goal.

Indeed, keeping the customer happy was the main objective at the lab. For example, on weekends, there was usually one tech working by himself. When the tech did his job correctly, he was not able to get the test results to the meat producer on time.

Consequently, the tech would be very rushed and prone to excluding steps in the testing process. Keep in mind that there are many steps taken to get an accurate result. Skipping any of these steps will produce a negative result and may lead to contaminated food being released to the public.

Just a few of these steps include weighing the meat, making a liquid (called ‘media’) and putting the meat in it for incubation in order to grow any contaminants. After several hours, techs put that liquid into test tubes that have been prepped with other liquids, before working with many sterile and precise measuring processes to get the samples ready for final testing.

To shorten the explanation: In the end, the final tube of liquid that goes into the testing machine only has the right volume in it to get a result, even if anything else was done wrong prior to this. As an example of how sensitive this is, a small amount of sterile water could be placed in the final tubes and it would still produce a negative result. Even if the whole process is done correctly, testing is hit-and-miss. A negative result only means that the small sample you received — if processed correctly — may be negative.

When a positive result came, it was re-tested — not to be sent out to the public, but just as verification. Often the re-test would be negative, and this meant nothing but the “pocket” of contamination was found the first time, but not the second. In other words, a contaminant was there on the first sample but was not on the second sample.

The time pressure — with usually two lab techs working weekdays — was the part that always scared me. Any step being missed would cause a bad result. Regrettably, more time was spent making sure the lab was clean (to avoid false positives) than on any other task.

So as we look at our food safety system and demand more testing, we must also look at the testing process itself. Self regulation, lack of meaningful oversight, and the concept of keeping the producers happy may undermine the whole process.

© Food Safety News
  • Jen

    Well that is just scary. I hope this isn’t the standard across the board.

  • doc raymond

    Industry testing of meat is entirely voluntary, and they destroy or cook millions of pounds of beef every year, also voluntary , for presumptive positives. They are to commended, not condemed,for their efforts. On the issue of a follow up sample being negative, that is to be expected depending upon the amount of contamination of the product.

  • Pete

    This guy works 4 months at a peanut plant and “blows the whistle”, then a few weeks at a testing laboratory and again with the “whistleblowing”! Man, we need him to get a series of jobs in Washington D.C. That’s some remarkably adventurous lifestyle unless he is one of those professional undercover activists who goes around doing this sort of gotcha crap for a living. One heck of a lot of coincidence in all this eye witness activity. Just sayin’

  • http://foodsafetynews.com jandrews

    Pete, from what I read, I don’t see Kendrick mention the amount of time he worked at the meat testing lab. From speaking with him, I can tell you that he does not work at these facilities with the intention of exposing their practices, nor does he seek out questionable workplaces in hopes of finding something to expose. But he does care about food safety and shares his observations when something concerns him.

  • Pete

    Whenever a solitary individual miraculously keeps appearing again and again in the inner midst of scandal and disaster one must stop and wonder…remarkable coincidence or common denominator?

  • Thomas

    I, too, think it is scandalous that a high school graduate trained in food safety by BurgerKing should be permitted to work in a testing laboratory. From their prior work experience that employee is far too inclined to keep things clean as a matter of routine and far too skilled at working quickly, confidently, efficiently.
    Definitely what is needed in these testing labs are college grads with advanced degrees in things like music appreciation or sub-Saharan short story literature, disinterested third parties dawbing about with mundane “liquids” and boring protocols of apparent unimportance to the testing process. You know, educated people who will stay mellow, contemplate the abstract meaning and not obsess over precision or cleanliness. That way we will be sure to maximize our proportion of positive results when we need them, false positives or otherwise. After all, we are there to culture positive test results…not to serve customers or earn profits or truly evaluate a product’s likely impact on public health.
    Thank goodness there are right-minded martyrs drifting in and out of these work environments setting things aright on their own personal terms, oblivious to the rigors science or the ethics of investigative reporting.

  • Michael

    I am not sure what Kendrick is saying here. It doesn’t make much sense to me.
    Is he saying that if we paid techs $20 dollars an hour results would be more reliable? This is a logical fallacy of monumental proportions.
    Is he saying that if we make testing more cost prohibitive then companies would be more likely to do it? Ummm…yeah.
    Is he implying that standard micro plating is so complex that only someone with a degree can do it accurately? Anyone with a degree in Biology knows this is not the case. Some cooking recipes are far more complex. I would argue sanitation crews need more in depth knowledge concerning microbiology than lab techs. On the whole this is a very shallow observation that ignores A LOT of context (labor market, low number of technical degree recipients, goals of those recipients etc.).
    Is he implying that labs should not ever be concerned with their customer’s satisfaction with the service? I have never had a lab that DOES NOT dispassionately report unfavorable findings to me. If they do not I would fire them. Would I continue working with them if their reporting timelines were unpredictable or vague? No. It would be impossible to operate with this kind of planning volatility. They need to be concerned with my satisfaction to be successful. A parallel example, would be ordering a burger at a restaurant. Should they be concerned with turn around time? Absolutely! No one would wait 3 hours for a burger, and be happy about it. Should they be so concerned(under cooking to get it out on time) that they compromise your health and their business as a result? No. That’s just stupidity.
    Finally, is he implying that labs should not be concerned with turn around time? Of course they should! A lot of food is perishable and only has so much shelf life. In other cases customer and consumers are demanding it. This should be a key aspect of a lab’s operational model. In fact, the push for quicker turn around time and larger volume has resulted in a lot of technical innovations (VIDAS, Petrifilm, ATP etc.)
    However, if a lab is cutting corners that produce compromised results they have a very short sighted view of their business. I do not know of any QA manager/director that would do business with them. In fact, the lab’s business would go under if something like this were found out.
    Profit motive isn’t a bad thing. It is poor management that doesn’t understand short term profit vs. long term stability which leads to misguided decisions. If this lab functioned this way then they are not just poor food safety gatekeepers, they are terrible business men as well.
    The article may be well intentioned, but I find it highly misleading. The average person will walk away with a very negative, inaccurate, and incomplete picture of how our industry functions.

  • Kenneth

    Really, to keep it short, all Iam saying, is that the self regulation does not work for labs.Of course there has to be a time frame for any business, but it should be staffed well enough with people that have basic knowledge and are concerned about accuracy. Yes, I worked at 2 businesses in 27 years of working that I felt had big enough issues to say something, I have made NO SORT OF LIVING on this, it is really opposite to that and I stay away from working in the food industry. (makes finding a job MUCH harder) The point is, if we are going to push for more testing, as I believe we should, let’s make sure the testing part of the process is accurate. There are some great labs, there are some poor ones. The difference between one more person working when you have one or two is a huge difference in being on time AND accurate as to just getting a result out. The cost is really low. I know I get the haters as a “whistleblower” but my intention in 2 events to help keep food safe, and want to make sure the last stage (lab results) are accurate. I have made ZERO MONEY for writing this, I am just trying to help so people know where to look. My only intention is to help this cause, I want you all to be safe, and some labs do cut corners, and we should monitor this.The meat producers may never know what corners are cut. I just want the labs to be accurate and timely, not just getting a result out. EVERYONE be safe.

  • http://foodsafetynews.com James Andrews

    Pete, from what I read, I don’t see Kendrick mention the amount of time he worked at the meat testing lab. From speaking with him, I can tell you that he does not work at these facilities with the intention of exposing their practices, nor does he seek out questionable workplaces in hopes of finding something to expose. But he does care about food safety and shares his observations when something concerns him.

  • Zachariah

    First congratulations on the article. Secondly, Dr. Raymond so called “meat testing is optional” it maybe. However, Kenneth is saying that this company is huge. They are probably getting contracts from big time companies like “McDonalds”. I guarantee you that they have their own standards. I doubt they would like this process if they seen it with their own eyes.
    This story seems very similar to mine with a company. We would work 16 hours plus in a shift sometimes. Imagine being accurate when you are tired. The job I had in the meat industry was very rigorous it was tiring.
    As for the A2LA thing I saw it first hand. It was ridiculous. The labs would call each other to make sure. This is not good practice. Plus the people who pushed paper also known as supervisors and lead lab technicians they were the only ones allowed to touch A2LA samples. The company I worked for said, “we were not careful enough.” This is bad science. The real excuse was we don’t want you, grunt, to screw up our accreditation.
    I worked alone a lot in the lab. We were told to skip verification steps when we were alone. This may sound sick but a single technician could easily switch a tube or two. Meaning they could say this meat is positive when it is really negative and vice versa.
    One way you could get promoted at the company is to take shortcuts in procedures. You could actually get a pay raise for doing it. Like if you were to weight a sample. You don’t pay attention to what the balance says.
    There are many stories from lots of employees about the company I worked for.

  • Pete

    Yeah, well it looks like self regulation may not be the very best method for self-styled whistleblowers either. Much too easy for anyone to get believing their own BS and thinking the entire rest of the world must be doing it wrong. As they get themselves deservedly beaten down it becomes much too easy for an operator to use them and egg them on to do more damage. Just sayin’

  • Jen

    Michael,
    In regards to your first question, I think the point he was making was that if you are going to pay $10/hr for these lab positions, no one who spent 4-5 years earning a BS or even someone who got a 2 year degree specializing in lab sciences is going to want to work for that amount of money. You are going to get people without experience, and possibly people who simply do not understand the science behind what they are doing. While the above scenario is not true in all cases, I would not want someone who’s only education was high school and only work experience was Burger King responsible for pathogen testing of food my family is going to eat.

  • Michael

    @Kenneth — First, you should never be ashamed of what you did concerning PCA. You don’t have to defend yourself anyone. Unless, someone knows what its like to be in that situation they need to be quiet. As for this article………Labs are not “self regulated”. They are audited quite frequently, and most have to be ISO 17025 certified. Many of the larger food companies are now actively auditing these labs, and requiring their ingredient suppliers to only use laboratories that have been verified competent. Lastly, based on the title of this article we were not talking about oversight or regulation. Instead, we were talking about profit motive and how that undermines food safety. Profit motive is what has driven much of our food safety technical innovations. It is a gross inaccuracy to say that profit corrupts food safety. It is an obsession with the short term that leads to these food safety disasters. Because in the long term the most profitable decision is always the one puts food safety at a premium. Also, profit motive exists even in the realm of government regulation. If people do not believe this then they are thoroughly naive.
    @Pete — Please take the time to understand the facts around the PCA recall before slinging mud at Kenneth. In my mind, and as a person who works in private sector food safety, what happened is beyond egregious. Why should we look down upon his actions?
    @Jen — I understood what he was saying. I was just demonstrating that this point is essentially meaningless. It ignores far too much context. As someone who has managed labs, managed quality departments I can tell you salary has no bearing on quality of work. I can also tell you people with a scientific degree rarely want to work as a lab technician anyway. More to the point, $20 an hour is roughly $40,000 per year, and most college graduates will not work that cheaply unless their is a crystal clear path in advancement (a very short one). This of course then leads to huge turn over in this role, which of course undermines our ultimate goal of a knowledgeable technician. In short that role & salary does not generally equate to their goals. Finally, individuals with technical degrees (e.g. Biology & Chemistry) are rare and shrinking. My experience tells me (subjective view point here) that the number technician jobs available exceed the number of scientific degrees actively looking for work. Finally, this work sounds complicated and difficult, but in truth, its following simple instructions. The technology behind it is complex, but the operation the equipment is not. A real life parallel, would be your computer. You probably do not under the complexities of how it operates, but that doesn’t stop you from using it as a tool.

  • Kenneth

    Thanks Michael, Jen and Zach. Michael, I very much respect your points. I know that you know, it is in your company’s best interest to keep food safe. Like Zach and I have both said, the real moral in short is keep an eye on your lab, and it sounds like you do. I hope and think many producers do. It is sad that it only takes one bad company to make so many good ones look bad as one bad batch of anything can kill so many people (I hated the damage done to peanut business with PCA)
    Pete, I understand you hate “whistle blowers” and we see this from food to banks, to Enron, people usually only speak out when internally no one listens. In a perfect world you tell your manager and it is fixed, I really wished the world always worked that way. Like Zach said, same type experience so it is not isolated. I respect your freedom in hating what I wrote or have done, and thank goodness we are in a country where you can dislike me or my opinion and vis versa. In a perfect world a potential disaster gets reported internally and gets it fixed internally. I do not have to convince myself of anything, I watched it with my own eyes. Many whistle blowers had to speak up or even the financial crisis would have been worse than it was (Health South, Enron, Country Wide and so on). My opinion is clear just based on what I have seen.

  • steve

    I know this man. Kenneth’s not a “professional activist” or making a profit as a whistleblower. His life and monetary security are day to day because of this, and his finances went down, not up, as a result. This experience has done nothing but hurt his life and his family’s life. But he reported it anyway because he could not in good conscience, let it slide as most people would.
    Me, I’m a meat eater for life. But I wouldn’t want that life shortened just so some big company can save a few dollars on their bottom line. Food testing is more important than cutting corners. And people willing to report abuses at their own personal, financial, and emotional expense are to be commended.
    To be honest, most of us, me included, would not have the courage Kenneth displayed, and continues to display. Most of us would look the other way, protect our jobs, our finances. Kenneth couldn’t. He endures the consequences of doing the right thing. Simply because it’s the right thing to do.
    We need more people like Kenneth, not less.
    And nothing makes me prouder, than calling him my friend.

  • Kenneth