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