Inspector observations from the investigation into the role of Bidart Bros. in last year’s 12-state outbreak of Listeriosis involving commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples found that the problem could well have originated in the California grower’s apple cooler and packing facility. The observations are found on U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 483 forms completed after four on-site investigations were conducted at the company’s facility in Shafter, CA, from Dec. 23, 2014, to Jan. 6, 2015, along with a mostly public 16-page report. The investigative team, including officials from FDA and the California Department of Public Health, took samples from food and non-food contact surfaces in packing and common cold storage areas and from outside storage bins. Positives for Listeria monocytogenes came back for seven areas, and six of those were from direct food contact surfaces. BidartBros_406x250Results of the on-site investigation last Jan. 6 caused Bidart Bros., one of northern California’s best known fruit-growing families, to voluntarily recall all the Granny Smith and Gala apples that were processed during 2014 through their cooler-packing facility. Before that action, three distributors of caramel apples — Happy Apples, California Snack Foods Inc. and Merb’s Candies — had recalled caramel apples they produced in response to the Listeria outbreak. That outbreak required the hospitalization of 34 of 35 people from 12 states who were sickened. Before the outbreak ended, seven of them were dead, and Listeriosis was blamed for the deaths of at least three of them. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was able to confirm that 31 of 35 (or about 90 percent) of those sickened in the outbreak had consumed caramel apples. Areas inside the Bidart Bros. packing plant where Listeria positives were found were on polishing brushes, drying brushes, packing line drain, inside a wood bin, and on an automatic line. “On 12/23/2014, we observed direct food contact areas of packaging equipment, used during the 2014 apple season, constructed and/or maintained in a manner so that they cannot be properly cleaned and sanitized,” according to one Form 483 observation. Also called out were a damaged conveyor belt with chipping and peeling paint on the transfer chute on the Granny’s Best packaging line, and green vinyl-coated padding lining the transfer chute to the peeler had frayed edges and exposed foam-like material. The same problem with the vinyl coating was found on the entrance to the packaging area, on a flap, and on a pad at the end of a line. In addition, a bucket conveyer was frayed, cracked and torn. The inspection report noted that Bidart Bros. “was very cooperative,” making its packing manager, cold storage manager, general manager, sales manager and safety director available throughout the inspection process, as well as brothers Leonard and John Bidart and their brother-in-law Bob Sullivan. Apple boxesBidart Bros., incorporated in 1983, grows apples, potatoes, oranges, lemons, table grapes and almonds. The company is headquartered in Bakersfield, CA, and also runs two calving operations. The owners are five siblings who are the grandchildren of Basque immigrant John Bidart, who came to California’s Central Valley from France in the 1880s to grow potatoes and raise livestock. FDA made numerous redactions from its inspection report such as blackening out the number of acres the Bidarts own, along with their peak season employment and the names of their major interstate customers. The facility that was the target of the investigation was first used in 1987. Prior to that, Bidart Bros. sold apples directly to other packers. During the 2014 season, it shipped apples in 700-pound triwall bins to processors with only a pallet tag affixed to the shipment. Apples shipped for juice were sent in either the customer’s bins or the Bidart Bros. wooden bins. Apples shipped for the fresh market were packed in 3-5-pound poly bags and 3-pound mesh bags. The FDA report notes that the team “informed management that conditions observed may, after further review by the Agency, be considered to be violations of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act or other statues and legal sanctions available to the FDA may include seizure, injection, civil money penalties, and prosecution.”