The publisher wanted one of us to attend last week’s meetings of the International Association for Food Protection at the Anaheim Convention Center near Disneyland.  I decided to go myself and “take one for the team,” hoping this was a group that has a couple of meetings in the morning and then adjourns for pool time.

Given my hopes, I did not choose wisely.   IAFP is about as serious about its symposia, roundtables, technical sessions, and poster presentations as any organization I’ve ever encountered.

They had multiple sessions going all day with start times beginning at 8:30 a.m. and not ending until those that began at 4:30 p.m. were over.   Numerous newsmakers in multiple rooms present a real dilemma for a reporter.  As I told the publisher later, it was a little bit like trying to drink out of a fire hose.

From the sessions I did attend, there was one star of the IAFP that’s worth talking about.   News is not, as an old journalism professor once told me, when a dog bites a man.  News is when a man bites a dog.

cookie-dough-iafp-featured.jpgIn that spirit, Tim Jackson, the safety guru for Nestle USA, was a star of the IAFP for making news by doing something we do not usually see.   

We do not usually see a company whose product was responsible for an outbreak pretty much baring all about the experience in front of an audience of regulators from all levels of government.

Jackson was just six months into his USA assignment from Nestle S.A. in Switzerland when he found himself on a conference call late on June 17, 2009 with officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Washington D.C.

They told him they believed raw cookie dough manufactured by Nestle in Danville, VA was responsible for a multi-state outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that as of the moment had led to infections in 63 people.  Some were critically ill, and would touch death’s door.

Before there was any “recovery” of one of its raw cookie dough products with a test positive for E. coli, or anything else like a date or product type that would help narrow the scope, Jackson said Nestle had a decision to make.

“Everything we had on the market was potentially at risk,” Jackson said.  He brought together the company’s crisis management team and opted to recall its entire cookie dough line-up.  It was the largest recall in scope in the history of Nestle USA, a company that still managed $10.4 billion in sales last year.

Twenty-four hours later, FDA inspectors arrived at the Danville plant to launch the investigation that would go on for months.  Jackson says, the plant continued cookie dough production just so FDA could watch how it made.

All that dough was discarded along with the recalled product.  When FDA had seen enough, the plant was shut down and taken apart as Nestle tried to solve the mystery of how a bacterium that typically originates in the hind gut of a cow ended up in raw cookie dough.

The investigators looked at just about everything.  Raw materials, air and water, the plant and equipment, the possibility of some outside event like a failure of the municipal water system, cross contamination, and employees were among the items investigated.

Most of these were dead-ends.  Nestle and FDA both investigated possible “disgruntled employees” and concluded there was not any evidence of that.  Some employees do live in rural areas with access to cattle, but environmental controls for coming and going were sufficient.

Nestle did not subject employees to testing because that would probably be too invasive from a legal standpoint, and there was no indication any employee was a problem.

Because different strains of E. coli were found in cookie dough at the plant and then after in January 2010 after it went back into production (none of these were ever shipped), Nestle opted to switch to using only “heat treated” flour.

In a panel specifically on flour, Jackson shared Nestlé’s proprietary research on testing flour for E. coli O157:H7.   It has long been known that flour can harbor bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli.

But since almost all flour is cooked in some form before it’s consumed that has not been a problem.  The common practice of eating raw cookie dough and the now growing trend of eating raw frozen pizza has both the industry and its regulators concerned.

Jackson disclosed that Nestle had to sample more than 32,000 samples of flour before coming up with one positive test for E. coli.   Still, as the investigation continued and the repeat presence of E. coli was found in cookie dough in January, Nestle USA opted to go with “heat-treated” flour.

While flour is tops on the suspect list, Jackson says Nestle cannot say it found the “root cause.”

Nestle figures the recall and investigation has cost the company more than $30 million, with ongoing research and litigation still ahead.  For Nestle, Jackson said, it was good news that its cookie dough sales quickly resumed their place in the market once the product was returned to the shelf in new packaging and colors.

As it took apart is plant, equipment, ingredients, transportation system, and other elements, Nestle searched for the “root cause” using a system that diagrams like boning a fish.  

When Jackson was through with his second presentation of the conference, I don’t think anyone could think of a bone he’d missed.