AIB responds to accusations of potential link to salmonella outbreak

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The American Institute of Baking, a Manhattan-based company, is a well-known corporation in the food industry, specializing in food safety and research. However, a recent New York Times article disputes the company’s effectiveness as a food auditor.

The March 6 article identified AIB and several other companies that offer food safety audits as sharing responsibility for recent food poisoning outbreaks. The conclusions drawn from audits of several companies “show that auditors failed to detect problems at plants whose contaminated products later sickened consumers,” according to the Times article.

Four of the six members of AIB’s senior management staff hold at least one degree from K-State.

AIB auditor Eugene Hatfield’s visit to the Blakely, Ga., Peanut Corporation of America plant in early March 2008 received considerable attention in the Times story written by Andrew Martin and Michael Moss. Hatfield is identified as an expert on fresh produce and was unaware that peanuts were “readily susceptible” to salmonella, according to the Times article.

A document available on the AIB Web site contends that Hatfield was misrepresented, and states that Hatfield received a bachelor’s degree in cellular biology and a master’s degree in applied biology. It also states that Hatfield had worked in a number of different areas of the food industry and had conducted approximately 200 audits of peanut facilities in his career.

The Times article noted that during Hatfield’s one-day audit he was not required to test for the bacteria, which later caused an outbreak across the United States. Hatfield concluded that the plant food safety level of the facility was “superior” according to his March 27, 2008, audit, which was obtained by the Times.

Federal investigators later discovered the PCA had been shipping tainted peanuts for at least nine months. The company has since filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The PCA knew when Hatfield would be inspecting the plant. Maureen Olewnik, vice president of audit and technical services for AIB, said the company offers both unannounced and announced inspections. She said the certificates the company receives clearly denote which inspection took place.

“We do record [the type of inspection] very clearly on the certificate they receive and the audit they got,” she said. “There are pluses and minuses to each. It depends on what the customer is looking for in that inspector. We try to be transparent on which one it is so anyone will know.”

Since the release of the Times article, AIB now requires a minimum of two days or longer to complete an inspection at a food processing facility. AIB has also announced it will change the name of its Good Manufacturing Practices inspection certificates from “Certificate of Achievement” to “Recognition of Achievement.”

A document available on AIB’s Web site notes that this was to “lower the possibility of our completed inspection process being misunderstood as an actual certification.”

Private audits of food companies like the PCA have increased as government auditors have been “overwhelmed” by the task of guarding the nation’s food supply, according to the Times article. Audits of food companies are not mandated by the government and are often an attempt by corporations to minimize liability and ensure safety.

Inspections by third-party food auditors are often significantly cheaper than those offered by the Food and Drug Administration, adding to the allure of the inspections.

But there are questions of impartiality. Usually, the companies being inspected pay food auditors. A document on AIB’s Web site notes that auditors are expected to maintain a professional relationship with personnel at each facility they audit.

“The relationships [auditors] build can be collaborative and cordial but cannot impinge upon the necessity to remain objective and impartial,” it reads. “This is especially important when auditors identify unsatisfactory situations that can result in a facility failing an inspection.”

Audits generally are only conducted at the manufacturing plants. Suppliers often go unexamined. According to the Times article, one plant in Pennsylvania, which manufactured Veggie Booty, a healthy snack, received an “excellent” rating from AIB in 2007. The plant’s Chinese supplier, which was not inspected, sickened 2,000 people in 19 states with salmonella-tainted spices.

Food products are rarely tested for pathogens during audits, according to the Times article. That is only the beginning of issues with third-party food audits, said Doug Powell, associate professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology and editor of barfblog.com, an online food safety blog.

“Third-party food audits, like restaurant inspection, are a snapshot in time,” Powell said. “They are not indicative of what happens day in and day out. It doesn’t really tell you much. There are some audits that are OK. It depends on the auditor.

“My concern is that — and I have done a lot of work with farmers and producers and companies — what you really want is to help people become better with food safety, whereas an audit is just a checklist that penalizes people. That doesn’t necessarily help people get better with food safety.”

To respond to problems with third-party auditors, two large companies are taking action. Kellogg has said it is reviewing all audits conducted by the American Institute of Baking.

Costco, a retail store, which previously limited AIB’s inspections to its bakery vendors, has now instructed suppliers to not use AIB at all.

Nonetheless, a move toward more audits conducted by third-party companies had been increasing in recent months leading up to the problems with the PCA. A document developed by the FDA as “guidance for industry” and released in December 2008 proposed expanding the role played by third-party food auditors.

AIB also sells educational services to food industry personnel. According to the Times article, the PCA said some of its employees attended the organization’s food safety training classes.

“Audits provide nearly half the income for the organization, according to tax filings and the organization’s Web site,” the article stated.

The company’s role as an educator and inspector has troubled some in the food industry, according to the Times article. Costco has rejected proposals by AIB to inspect all of its food suppliers.

“The American Institute of Baking is bakery experts,” said R. Craig Wilson, the top safety official at Costco. “But you stick them in a peanut butter plant or in a beef plant, they are stuffed.”

While third-party food auditors had their share of problems detecting the issues at the PCA, state inspectors did not fare much better. However, a federal team of investigators uncovered many signs in February 2009, along with testing records produced by the company showing the presence of salmonella in its products as far back as June 2007.

Federal investigators found mold growing in the ceiling and walls of the firm’s cooler used for finished product storage. Water stains were also observed running down from the cooling unit fans in the cooler. On Jan. 10, the date of the observation, pallets of finished products were stored directly below this unit. In addition, inspectors found it “visually difficult to discern” which containers contained finished products and which contained raw products.

The AIB Web site attributes this to a lack of a plant manager from June to October 2008, which is only the beginning of their explanation.

“The Blakely, [Ga.], facility was a highly complicated operation with aging equipment that required constant upkeep and attention to remain within acceptable sanitation levels,” the AIB Web site noted. “Four months without day-to-day ongoing technical oversight would be more than enough time to cause such a facility’s condition to decline.”

As of March 17, there were 691 officially reported cases of salmonella poisoning in the outbreak, according to the Center for Disease Control’s Web site. At least nine people have died, according to an April 9 Fox News report.

An additional audit by NSF Cook & Thurber, another food auditing company, also found “minor” problems at the PCA plant but gave the plant a 91 out of 100 overall score. Officials at NSF contend that for their audits, 91 is a low score. According to the Times article, the American International Group, who commissioned the audit, then “sold the peanut company insurance to cover the costs of recalling products, according to lawyers for the Peanut Corporation.”

On March 19, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations led a hearing on the salmonella outbreak and the role of third-party food auditors in protecting the nation’s food supply. AIB’s audit at the PCA facility was referenced, but AIB’s Web site called the references to AIB’s audit a “mischaracterization.”

Powell said certain measures can be taken to ensure a safer food supply.

“You cannot inspect your way to a safe food supply,” he said. “Testing and inspection are important, but they are not enough. You have to have preventive measures in place, and what you need is a culture of food safety in every food safety plant.

“After the PCA plant, you had all the employees saying [the PCA facility] was a dump. It would have been nice for them to say that before nine people died.”

Check out the documentation from AIB here.

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