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Associated Press
Debbie Frederick says her father, William Beach, “died in terror and pain” after eating toxic cantaloupes.

Deadly food gets FDA stamp of safety

– WASHINGTON – William Beach loved cantaloupe – so much so that starting in June last year he ate it almost every day. By August, the 87-year-old retired tractor mechanic from Mustang, Okla., was complaining to his family that he was fatigued, with pain everywhere in his body.

On Sept. 1, 2011, Beach got out of bed in the middle of the night, put his clothes on and walked into the living room. His wife, Monette, found him collapsed on the floor in the morning. At the hospital, blood poured from his mouth and nose, splattering sheets, bed rails and physicians.

He died that night, a victim of Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that can lead to a blood infection and damage to the brain and spinal cord.

Beach was one of 33 people killed by listeria that was later traced by the Food and Drug Administration and state officials to contaminated cantaloupes from one Colorado farm. It was the deadliest outbreak of foodborne disease in the United States in almost 100 years.

"He died in terror and pain," says his daughter Debbie Frederick.

About seven weeks after Beach started eating cantaloupes, a private, for-profit inspection company awarded a top safety rating to Jensen Farms, the Granada, Colo., grower of his toxic fruit. The approval meant retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores and Wegmans Food Markets could sell Jensen melons.

The FDA, a federal agency nominally responsible for overseeing most food safety, had never inspected Jensen.

During the past two decades, the food industry has taken over much of the FDA's role in ensuring that what Americans eat is safe. The agency can't come close to vetting its jurisdiction of $1.2 trillion in annual food sales.

In 2011, the FDA inspected 6 percent of domestic food producers and just 0.4 percent of importers. The FDA has had no rules for how often food producers must be inspected.

The food industry hires for-profit inspection companies – known as third-party auditors – who aren't required by law to meet any federal standards and have no government supervision.

Food sickens 48 million Americans a year, with 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 killed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

The United States had 37 recalls of fruits and vegetables in 2011, up from two in 2005.

What for-hire auditors do is cloaked in secrecy; they don't have to make their findings public. Bloomberg Markets magazine obtained four audit reports and three audit certificates through court cases, congressional investigations and company websites.

Six audits gave sterling marks to the cantaloupe farm, an egg producer, a peanut processor and a ground-turkey plant – either before or right after they supplied toxic food.

Collectively, these growers and processors were responsible for tainted food that sickened 2,936 people and killed 43 in 50 states.

"The outbreaks we're seeing are endless," says Doug Powell, lead author of an Aug. 30 study on third-party monitors called "Audits and Inspections Are Never Enough." Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, says Americans are at risk whenever they go to a supermarket.

"You need to be in a culture that takes food safety seriously," Powell says. "Right now, what we have is hidden. The third-party auditor stickers and certificates are meaningless."

The FDA is trying, so far without success, to wrest back control of food inspection from the industry. In 2008, the agency estimated that it would need another $3 billion – quadrupling its $1 billion annual budget for food safety – to conduct inspections on imported and domestic food, the FDA's former food safety chief David Acheson says.

Instead, the food industry lobbied for, and won, enactment of a law in January 2011 that expanded the role of auditors – and foreign governments – in vetting producers and distributors of food bound for the U.S.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, which passed Congress with bi-partisan support, will allow the FDA to certify private companies to audit producers of imported food on its behalf.

The law mandates that these auditors submit their reports to the agency. These rules don't apply to domestic inspection companies, which still won't be approved by the FDA and don't report their findings.

Under the 2011 law, the FDA will require high-risk producers to be inspected every five years starting in 2016, according to the agency's website.

Auditors evaluate their clients using standards selected by the companies that pay them, says Mansour Samadpour, owner of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group in Lake Forest Park, Wash., which does testing for the FDA. The auditors sometimes follow a checklist that the company they're inspecting has helped write.

"If you have a program for adding rat poison to a food, the auditor will ask, 'Did you add as much as you intended?"' Samadpour says. "Most won't ask, 'Why the hell are we adding poison?"'

The Beach family is suing Jensen and says Jensen's faulty safety system killed Beach. Brenda Beach Hathaway, one of Beach's daughters, says the third-party audit system is a sham.

"The auditor just says everything is all right even when it's not," she says. "It's wrong. My daddy wasn't ready to die, and he died such a violent death."

Policeman Son's Peanut Butter Snack Means Salmonella Pain (Chicago)

CHICAGO - When Pete Hurley's kids were younger, he carried juice and crackers in his car in case they got hungry. His son Jake liked a Kellogg Co. brand called Austin Toasty Crackers With Peanut Butter. So Hurley started buying them in 48-package cases at a Costco Wholesale Corp. outlet in Wilsonville, Ore., where he lives.

In January 2009, Jake became pale and lethargic and started vomiting. Next came diarrhea, which, after three days, was filled with blood.

"My wife and I were amazed at what a trouper he was, sleeping on the couch, walking to the bathroom, then returning to the couch to go back to sleep," says Hurley, 44, a police officer in Portland.

Jake was 2 years old then. On the seventh day of his illness, doctors diagnosed him as a victim of salmonella poisoning. They advised Pete and his wife, Brandy, to keep Jake hydrated and let the disease run its course.

When he felt better, he started asking them for his favorite snack - peanut butter crackers - and they gave them to him. Pete says he doesn't know whether that prolonged Jake's illness.

While Jake was still marching to the bathroom, Pete saw reports on television of a salmonella outbreak caused by peanut butter. So he had several discussions with Bill Keene, an epidemiologist for the state of Oregon. Hurley had a few packs of peanut butter crackers in his car, which he gave to Keene.

The crackers, he says, provided public health authorities with their first DNA-verified link between the peanut butter producer and people who were ill.

AIB International had audited Blakely, Ga.-based Peanut Corp. of America on March 27, 2008, giving it a "superior" rating. That helped assure companies like Kellogg that Peanut Corp. products were safe.

Starting in September 2008, 714 people, including Jake, were sickened by contaminated peanut butter. Nine people died. FDA inspectors came to the plant in January 2009, just as newly reported illnesses were starting to diminish. They found the facility riddled with mold and dead cockroaches, and water stains were on the ceiling directly above packaging lines.

Craig Wilson, food safety vice president at Costco, responded to the peanut butter outbreak by making his suppliers responsible not just for what they produce but also for every ingredient they include in every product shipped to the company.

"We looked at ourselves and said, 'Holy crap, how did we miss this?'" Wilson says.

After diarrhea that lasted 11 days, Jake started feeling better. He returned to preschool in another three days. Doctors tell his parents that the boy may suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome for the rest of his life.

Uninspected Imported Mexican Peppers Mean Death for Preacher

Raul Rivera took his family to dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Houston to celebrate a new lease on life. His oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center had just told him he'd probably survive non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"We were so happy because it looked like he'd beaten cancer," Rivera's wife, Barbara, says of the dinner on May 21, 2008.

Instead, it was Rivera's last sit-down meal. Over the next seven days, he got so sick with diarrhea, fever and stomach pain that his wife had an ambulance take him to St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston.

Four others at the dinner got sick, and tests showed that Rivera was infected with salmonella, which can be fatal in children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. Rivera, who gave up a career at Nabisco to start a Baptist church, died on June 4, 2008. Rivera's death certificate lists salmonellosis as the sole significant contributor to his passing.

He was a victim of a foodborne outbreak caused by an imported product. The salsa-like pico de gallo that Rivera had eaten was contaminated with salmonella, the Houston Department of Health and Human Services found. The CDC found that jalapenos from Mexico caused the outbreak that sickened 1,442 people, killing two in 2008.

The outbreak shows the dangers behind America's rising dependence on imported food, says Trevor Suslow, who teaches produce safety at the University of California, Davis. Imported food accounts for a fifth of what Americans eat, and outbreaks caused by foreign food are rising in the U.S., the CDC says.

There were 39 from 2005 to 2010, more than double the number from the previous six-year period. One of the latest was caused by salmonella-contaminated mangoes from Mexico, which had sickened 121 people in the U.S. by Sept. 14.

FDA investigators traced the jalapeno outbreak to a McAllen, Texas, warehouse used by Nueva Leon, Mexico-based produce exporter Agricola Zaragoza. Crates of jalapenos tested positive for the salmonella strain that killed Rivera.

The peppers came from a farm in Mexico's Tamaulipas state, where irrigation water was contaminated with salmonella, FDA inspection reports show. The FDA announced the outbreak publicly on June 3, 2008, one day before Rivera died. By then, federal health officials had confirmed or suspected that at least 70 Americans were sick, CDC records show.

Rivera wouldn't have eaten the peppers had he known there was a salmonella outbreak because his immune system had been weakened by chemotherapy, his wife says. She took great care to avoid risks.

"I am convinced this could have been avoided if they had just told us there was an outbreak," she says, standing over her husband's grave in Houston.

Private Food Inspection Firm Has Directors from Its Customers (Washn)

WASHINGTON - The auditing firms that the food industry hires to ensure the safety of its products sometimes have close ties to their clients. At monitoring firm AIB International, two top decision makers are executives at companies that use AIB for audits.

AIB Chairman David Murphy is president of Mother Murphy’s Laboratories Inc., a Greensboro, N.C., flavoring company that uses AIB to vet its factories. AIB Vice Chairman Donald Thriffiley Jr. is a senior vice president of Flowers Foods in Thomasville, Ga. Flowers, which makes Tastykake desserts, uses AIB audits.

AIB’s previous chairman, Daniel Babin, is vice president of supply chain strategy at Bimbo Bakeries USA Inc. in Horsham, Pa. Its parent, Mexico City-based Grupo Bimbo, the world’s largest breadmaker, with brands such as Arnold bread and Thomas’ English Muffins, is audited by AIB.

Spokespeople for Bimbo and Mother Murphy’s said there was no conflict and these relationships didn’t affect audits of their operations. Flowers Foods says Thriffiley works to ensure that audits are independent and impartial.

“We do not believe that serving on the AIB board would in any way influence the outcome or quality of the inspections,” says David Marguiles, a Bimbo spokesman.

The American National Standards Institute, a group that oversees private auditors on behalf of the Global Food Safety Initiative, hasn’t cited AIB for any conflicts, says Maureen Olewnik, AIB’s vice president for auditing.

ANSI’s vice president for accreditation, Lane Hallenbeck, says he didn’t know that executives at food companies held posts at AIB; he plans to investigate.

“It sounds likes this could potentially be a conflict,” Hallenbeck says.