In the past, I’ve been critical of bad PR by companies at the center of outbreaks of foodborne disease.  Many times, the bad PR choices and statements come from small-scale producers who, in their defense, are often fighting for the very survival of their businesses.  Sometimes, however, it’s regular old corporations that loudly proclaim their innocence in the face of sturdy epidemiological and environmental evidence, thereby digging the hole they’re planted in that much deeper. 

Sangar Produce and Processing Co., a San Antonia processor of fresh vegetables for foodservice operations, was recently implicated by the State of Texas after epidemiological evidence linked as many as 10 Listeria monocytogenes illnesses to the company.  The State of Texas did not act until testing done on an unopened package of celery processed by Sangar tested positive for a strain of Listeria that matched the outbreak illnesses exactly by PFGE testing.  After being presented with this evidence, Sangar declined to voluntarily, and temporarily, close its processing operation, and was, as a result, immediately shut down by the State of Texas.  Sangar then claimed that the State of Texas got it all wrong, and that the test results Texas had generated were unreliable.

The FDA today put the nail in the coffin for Sangar when it released its 483 inspection report, which indicates that multiple samples taken from the production environment at Sangar tested positive for Listeria.  In addition to these positive tests, however, the 483 report also discusses multiple sanitation violations at the facility that, in all likelihood, contributed to the spread of disease, and the deaths of 4 or 5 people.  Among the observations and violations:

  1. Failure to take necessary precautions to protect against contamination of food and food contact surfaces with microorganisms.
  2. Failure to conduct cleaning and sanitizing operations for utensils and equipment in a manner that protects against contamination of food, food-contact surfaces, and food-packaging materials.
  3. Employees did not wash hands thoroughly in an adequate hand-washing facility at any time their hands may have become soiled or contaminated.
  4. Personnel with adverse health conditions are not instructed to report to their supervisors.
  5. Failure to clean food-contact surfaces and utensils as frequently as necessary to protect against contamination of food.
  6. Failure to take apart equipment as necessary to ensure thorough cleaning.
  7. Failure to take effective measures to protect finished food from contamination by raw materials and refuse.
  8. Failure to store raw materials in a manner that protects against contamination.
  9. The design, construction, and use of equipment and utensils fails to preclude the adulteration of food with contaminants.
  10. Failure to maintain equipment, containers, and utensils used to store food in a manner that protects against contamination.
  11. Lack of adequate drainage of areas which may contribute to contamination of food by seepage, food-borne filth, and providing a breeding place for pests.
  12. Failure to hold foods which can support the rapid growth of undesirable microorganisms at a temperature that prevents the food from becoming adulterated.
  13. The plant is not constructed in such a manner as to allow floors and walls to be adequately cleaned and kept clean and kept in good repair.
  14. Plumbing constitutes a source of contamination to food, water supplies, equipment, and utensils.
  15. Failure to maintain buildings, fixtures, or other physical facilities in a sanitary condition.
  16. Lack of a sanitary towel service or suitable hand drying devices.
  17. Hand-washing facilities lack running water of a suitable temperature.
  18. Failure to provide adequate screening or other protection against pests.
  19. Appropriate training in food handling techniques and food protection principles has not been provided to food handlers.

Again, it is fair to question the evidence against you when your company is potentially implicated in a foodpoisoning outbreak.  But deny, deny, deny never works, particularly when it is patently obvious that the investigating health organization has acted competently, and has not prejudged intriguing circumstances and jumped to conclusions.  Companies need to check out Bill Marler’s seven steps for CEO’s faced with a foodpoisoning crisis.  His fourth point:

assuming that the outbreak is in fact your fault, publicly admit it. If it is not your fault, then fight it. However, pretending that you are innocent when you are actually at fault will get you nowhere. Asking for forgiveness is not a bad thing when you have something to be forgiven for. Saying you are sorry is not wrong when you are in fact wrong.