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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Cheese Factory Halts Production Due to E. coli Risk

The Tillamook Cheese Factory halted production and stopped serving food Friday and Saturday after fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria were found in the local water supply. The Kilchis Regional Water System, which includes the cheese factory, Bay City, Northwood, Latimer and Juno, was under a boil water alert after the contaminants were detected March 17.

“The presence of fecal coliforms and E. coli bacteria indicates the water may be contaminated with human or animal wastes,” the Tillamook County Emergency Management statement read. “Microbes in these wastes can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms.”

Drinking the water without first boiling it could pose a special health risk for infants, young children, and people with compromised immune systems, according to the statement. The boil water alert ended Saturday afternoon. TCEM released a statement assuring residents the water was safe to drink. The Tillamook Cheese Factory was open throughout the duration of the boil water alert, but did not serve food and retained only limited staff on the premises.

  • John Munsell

    This presents an interesting scenario. Consumers and businesses (such as Tillamook Cheese Factory) in the Kilchis Regional Water System are accustomed to ingesting water without first testing the water on a daily, weekly, monthly or annual schedule. Or boiling all incoming water prior to consumption. The Water System, which is the SOURCE of drinking water, performs the testing, and does not expect its downstream consumers to do the testing. Now that fecal coliform and E.coli bacteria have been detected in the water, in addition to consumers complying with the boil alert, the Water System must go further UPSTREAM to determine the true SOURCE of contamination.
    The Water System and the Public Health Department are not assessing liability against consumers and businesses which consume the water for INTRODUCING the bacteria into the water supply. In stark contrast, when USDA/FSIS detects contaminants in downstream meat plants (liken to drinking water in a consumer’s home, or at Tillamook Cheese Factory), the agency unleashes its full enforcement authority against the downstream entity which unwittingly purchased previously contaminated meat from its source slaughter providers. And, the contaminant is invisible, and arrives in boxes emblazoned with the official USDA Mark of Inspection. Therefore, since USDA already inspected and passed the meat, downstream consumers presume the meat indeed is wholesome.
    As long as USDA/FSIS primarily focuses its inspection and enforcement actions against downstream meat plants which purchase products from upstream providers, we will continue to experience ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls. Likewise, if the Public Health authorities, CDC and whoever else is responsible for investigating this unsafe water scenario would conclude that household consumers and businesses such as the cheese factory are responsible for the presence of the fecal coliform, while ignoring the Kilchis Regional Water System, corrective actions would not be implemented at the SOURCE, virtually guaranteeing additional future sickness outbreaks. This is precisely what is happening within the meat industry, with full endorsement from high ranking FSIS lifer bureaucrats.
    This is a veritable national scandal, begging for full revelation.
    John Munsell

  • Bill Anderson

    Sounds like the result of run-off from a CAFO factory-farm type operation.
    This is the consequence of our incredibly descructive industrial food production system in America.
    Also, I don’t understand why Tillamook Cheese was targetted in this blog entry. They have done nothing wrong, and it appears they stopped producing cheese during the “boil water” alert. They should not be the target of a “food safety” alert.

  • Francis

    sure seems like somebody has it out for this cheese company. Really disappointed in the extremely bias reporting.

  • Sam

    I’m curious to know if all the other food service establishments in Tillamook also stopped serving food during this time period. My bet is that McDonald’s sales never stopped…

  • Minkpuppy

    Contrary to what Mr. Anderson and Francis seem to be getting out of this article, I see a plant being held up as a shining example for doing the right thing and halting production when it learned it’s water source was contaminated. It’s newsworthy for that very reason and for the fact that it’s business was affected by the contaminated water source. They protected the consumer rather than risk producing cheese that could make someone ill. Good for them!

    This article is not a “Food safety” alert as Mr. Anderson claims or a bias against the company as Francis claims. Enough with the negative Nelly business that somehow the cheese industry is the target of all that is evil! The argument is old and tired and is a dog that just doesn’t hunt with me. There is no food safety alert because no product was affected. READ THE ARTICLE!

    God Forbid a CHEESEMAKER should do the right thing and be given props for it. It has to be a conspiracy to discredit the entire cheesemaking industry because the article even mentions it. Sheesh! Get real.

    Mr. Munsell–if you follow USDA policy as closely as you claim to do, then you know that USDA is taking steps to correct the situation you describe. I’d hate to think that all the time and effort my colleagues and I put into collecting supplier information and beef grinding operations is all for naught. Traceback is being addressed.

    All the venom spewed on this website is really getting on my nerves. For once, can we have an intelligent, informative conversation around here without it being reduced into slamming each other, “Big industry” and “big government”?

    Yeah, I work for the government but I’m not a shill. I do it because I genuinely care about protecting the public health and there’s no where else to go to do it. Food safety is not a priority in industry and will never be unless it becomes profitable for industry to make it that way. No amount of legislation or policy making will make it that way. Vote with your wallets folx and make it happen.

  • John Munsell

    Minkpuppy is right, in that FSIS is doing something about traceback at this time. As an example, the agency issued Notice 58-10 on October 8, 2010, which requires inspectors to document the SOURCE of meat being sampled at the time of sample collection. A full 12 years after HACCP was implemented, the agency finally authorized common sense documentation of SOURCE evidence at the time of sample collection. I’ve been arguing with FSIS on this issue since January, 2002, but with no success………until the agency finally released Notice 58-10 last fall.
    I could write a book on how the agency aggressively avoided such documentation since 2002, with numerous examples. For example, at a Senate Field Hearing on Dec 11, 2002, I suggested that the agency document all source evidence at the time of sample collection. Representing FSIS at the Field Hearing was William C. Smith, then Deputy FSIS Administrator for the Office of Field Operations. His official reply, verbatim, was “We could have inspectors doing more important things”. Furthermore, he stated “……because a number of packers would also be very upset about us collecting information on negative findings”. Check out the official transcript!
    Another example: on March 10, 2010, FSIS hosted a 1/2 day (not worth any more) hearing on Tracebacks in DC. Ironic, the agency waited a full 12 years after HACCP’s advent to ask the public for traceback ideas, which shows how the agency had the whole concept of traceback on the rear burner indefinitely, until its conspicuous absence caused enough PR damage that the agency hosted a Traceback hearing.
    Minkpuppy, if you have been collecting SOURCE information prior to Notice 58-10, I’d like to speak to you in detail…………privately, away from FSIS surveillance. Do you know that other inspectors who had been unilaterally collecting such information, in the absence of formal authorization, have gotten into hot water in recent years? Believe me, it has been like pulling teeth to get the agency to author Notice 58-10, and I’ve got to hand it to Al Almanza and Dr. Elisabeth Hagen for this bold, and dangerous, precedent.
    John Munsell

  • Minkpuppy

    John,
    I was feeling a bit snarky and cranky yesterday so forgive anything offensive I had to say. I”m getting more than a bit frustrated about the whole overall food safety regulatory situation, not just ground beef. We’ve come a long ways but there’s a long way to go yet. Unfortunately, I see huge setbacks on the horizon if funding is cut and we fail to keep educating the public.
    The big change I saw with Notice 58-10 was that we are now collecting the source information prior to sending samples to the lab rather than waiting until a positive comes back and a recall is happening. Prior to the notice all gathering of source information was after the fact and totally ineffective, especially if the product had already shipped. But it was happening, just not being advertised as such and far too late in the process to do any good. I recently jumped back over into processing last year after being in imports inspection for a few years and traceback in imports wasn’t a huge issue. If a positive came back, we had the health certificate, foreign establishment information and the trimmings on hold from the get go. Recalls were another matter-finding out where the importer sent it to after it left the warehouse was like pulling teeth.
    On the processing side, we run into the biggest problem at small grinders that buy from an intermediate rather than directly from the big plants. The intermediate plant could be cutting imported meat and domestic meat and are usually mixing the trim all together. The trimmings could be from anywhere at that point and narrowing the sources down is a monumental task.
    I, personally don’t know of anyone that has gotten into trouble over informally gathering source information but I realize the district and circuit I’m in are a bit unusual compared to what I hear out of other districts. It’s probably going on but no one’s talking about it, if you catch my drift.
    If you let me know where to email you, I’ll get you my personal email.

  • Jess C. Rajan, Ph.D.

    FSIS Notices are low-level temporary documents used for internal information and/or instructions for the agency employees. Notices have a shelf-life of about one year.
    FSIS Notice 58-10 instructs inspection program employees to keep informal memorandum of interview (MOI) documents on whatever information they are able to collect about the sources/suppliers. This type of informal procedures would result in inconsistent and unreliable information.
    For consistent information collections and documentations, government agencies would use official (OMB approved) Forms with estimated burden on the private parties involved.

  • Minkpuppy

    Jess,
    The instructions we received regarding the MOI’s for Notice 58-10 were that we have to document it on the MOI and send it to our frontline supervisor anytime we send out a ground beef E. coli sample. FSIS is taking the angle that any documentation is better than no documentation. We don’t have official forms for this type of information which leaves us with no choice but to use and MOI.
    More and more, the MOI’s are being used as proof that the inspector is doing his/her job. I know inspectors who have been disciplined for not documenting various items on weekly MOI’s when problems came up later in their plants. It’s been highly stressed that we must do this as part of our job performance if we expect to continue receiving favorable progress reviews and performance evaluations.
    Believe me, if one of my co-workers fails to document the source information, our district office will hang them out to dry if a recall/outbreak occurs and that information is not on an MOI as they were instructed to do.

  • John Munsell

    Minkpuppy:
    Call me at 406-234-1877, at which time we can share contact info.
    Regarding documenting source information at the time of sample collection. When Notice 58-10 was released, I contacted Dr. Phyllis Adams, manager of the agency’s Minneapolis District Office. I asked her how inspectors are to document source information, and she merely replied that inspectors will comply with Notice 58-10. So, I renotified her, and asked her if her reply meant that the agency has NOT recommended the use of a particular form. Her reply thus far………zero. This is too hot of a potato! If the source information proves the meat to have emanated from a single source meat product (not commingled), ground through a cleaned and sanitized grinder (no residual contamination from previous grinds) turns out to be a positive, and the meat emanated from one of the Big 4 packers, the agency resists the unpleasant task of communicating potential problems to a sizeable industry player. Instead, history shows that the agency will accuse the inspector or the plant with unwittingly contaminating the sampled meat during the sampling protocol.
    I’ll look forward to your call!
    John Munsell

  • Doc Mudd

    Geez, give it a rest John. There is no conspiracy to frame small resellers who purchase cheap meat scraps, grind them together, shape them into patties and overcharge me for them in the market. But maybe there should be.
    At least Tillamook Cheese (remember them, the subject of the article?), at least they actually produce something. And they seem to manufacture responsibly. Without whining and conspiracy theorizing. How refreshing!

  • Minkpuppy

    Doc Mudd,
    there may be no “conspiracy” as you say, but the USDA is definitely not holding the big packers responsible for producing contaminating trimmings that they then pass along to the small processor. Anyone in the industry with half a brain knows that the E. coli was on those trimmings before they ever entered the grinding plant. The grinder does have a resposibility to minimize cross contamination of multiple lots of ground beef. That being said, they can do everything possible to control that cross contamination and demand worthless certificates of analysis but still have E. coli positives. Instead of going to the source where the grinder purchased his meat, they put enforcement action on the grinder. You wouldn’t believe the hoops those guys have to jump through if they want to make ground beef. Most have stopped grinding or send the meat somewhere to be cooked or irradiated afterwards. It’s the only way to guarantee its safe and cover their butts.
    The problem has to be addressed at the plant that provides the source material (ie the big packers). That’s not being done. End of story. The carcass dressing procedures in high-speed slaughter plants do not lead to a clean carcass. I know. I’ve worked those plants. When they pull the hides, fecal material flies everywhere. The meat becomes contaminated at the slaughterhouse. That’s all there is to it. You can’t hold a responsible small processor 100% responsible for contamination he didn’t put there. Now if the processor is doing stupid stuff and causing cross contamination of clean product, then yeah, throw the book at him.

  • Doc Mudd

    Perhaps these grinders should routinely be irradiating or cooking their merchandise as a last step before peddling it. That could be the solution.
    Grinding assorted meat scraps together, that entire concept is a recipe for trouble. Basically, let’s truck in every cheap tub of trimmings and floor sweepings we can get our hands on, dump them all into our greasy hopper and grind and mush everything together randomly from one day to the next. In a different venue the term ‘promiscuous’ would politely apply. It’s remarkable that ground beef isn’t in the news more often than it is!
    One of my objections here is that these little grinders aren’t actually “producing” anything in the purest sense of the word – more like salvaging or recycling. They serve a purpose, of sorts, but they are not indispensible by any means. It’s maybe a little too convenient for them to claim martyrdom under the circumstances. If they are so pure and sanitary as they claim, maybe they should be slaughtering & expertly pulling hides to produce their own prime cuts and safe trim for grinding – why purchase someone else’s problem and make it your own if you can do pristine work yourself?
    If they are gonna be trouble, if they can’t ship safe product for whatever reason then why even screw around with them, why assume the risk? Might better have the evil ‘big packers’ process their own scraps and label the finished product – no issues with traceback then. And one hell of a lot less blaming and whining and moaning and carrying-on.
    Perhaps my empathy has played out, but I see no problem firmly holding disgruntled entrepreneurs to account. And if that pressures them to take up some other safer, happier line of business, well, we won’t charge them any extra for the serendipitous career counseling.
    Anyway, all of this has taken us pretty far off-topic from TIllamook Cheese’s commendable professional response to a potential safety issue. Their manufacturing process seems to safely handle raw material (milk, water, etc.) that flows in from various sources, each with unique hygiene issues from time to time. If Tillamook Cheese is whining and blaming, that isn’t mentioned in the article or the headline.

  • Minkpuppy

    Doc,
    This is far off topic but it’s still a good discussion. :-)
    Grinding is usually only one thing the small processors provide but a lot have quit due to the hassles involved. Quite often they are also cutting steaks, chops etc for grocery stores and restaraunts as well. A lot of the trimmings come from those cuts. The big processors sell only primal cuts for the most part so someone downstream has to do the cutting. More and more grocery stores are moving away from meat cutting and are purchasing the cuts from the small processors. It’s difficult to keep the trim seperated when they’re cutting small amounts of primals from various sources. They often buy from another middle man that just pulls cases and throws them all together to fill the order. What you’re suggesting is a complete overall of meat distribution and that isn’t going to happen overnight.
    And yes the grinders I’ve inspected are very pristine operations. They can’t afford the liability and they know it. One company also grinds bison and venison but only after they’re done with the beef and have done a thorough washdown to prevent cross-contamination. The dirty grinders go out of business, quickly. (re: Topps Meats recall). You have to clean those grinders between lots or you’re gonna be up the fecal river without a rowing device when you have to recall several tons of ground beef.
    Trimmings are not all “junk” meat and can actually be some large pieces of meat that are cut off the roasts and such and I don’t blame the processors for wanting to get their money’s worth out of that 40-50 lb chuck they bought from Con-Agra after they’ve trimmed it into roasts and chuck steak. I would do the same. Why throw away perfectly good cuts of meat? I’ve seen chunks of trim that are big enough to make nice 2-3 lb roast for me and my husband but they don’t sell them as such because they don’t look pretty enough. I’d gladly take that home and throw it in the crock pot if I could (conflicts of interests prohibit it).
    I work with these small processors everyday. They receive guarantees from the large plants that the product they are buying is certified free of E. coli and then they get blindsided. Why should they pay for irradiation? The contamination comes from the big processors so if the big plants want to make money off selling that crap then they should pay for it, especially if they are going to issue guarantees that it’s okey-dokey for grinding. The only way that’s going to happen is to make it mandatory to irradiate all beef. Then watch the anti-irradiation/anti-big government folks crawl out of the woodwork. All heck will break loose.
    There’s just no easy fix in the near future. :-(

  • Doc Mudd

    Well, I’m confident there’s an expedient resolution to the unnecessary ‘dilemma’ of these whining grinders if they insist upon forcing the issue.
    In the meantime, they’re damned lucky to have a dedicated and empathetic inspector and advisor such as yourself. I’ve about had it with their droning sob stories and tedious little catastrophies – if I were dealing with them they wouldn’t be carrying water for anti-agriculture activists and dawbing around in a haze of blame and conspiracy for very long. Not for long, at all, before they would find relief from their current torment to pursue a pot of gold at the distant end of some new rainbow.
    Oh, well, keep the faith. It’s about all that buffers some of these tiresome dangerous duffers from reality. I only hope they appreciate all that you do for them ;>)

  • Minkpuppy

    Doc,
    Wow, it must take a lot of energy to be so angry all the time.
    And yes, most of the small processors do appreciate the inspection approach we use in this circuit (there are the exceptions but they are known crackpots and we don’t cut them an inch of slack). Our philosophy is that we’re all trying to accomplish the same thing–producing the safest product we can get out there. Unfortunately, it’s consumers like you that do not appreciate the inspectors and assume that all meat processors are worthless scum trying to poison the unsuspecting public and all inspectors are just a sign of a big government gone bad. That’s what makes my job truly thankless but I still drag my butt out of bed every day because I know someone has to do it.
    Small meat processors ARE NOT asking to be exempt from the regulations like the idiots opposing FSMA. They know that’s not going to happen. They just want FSIS to do their job which is enforcing the regulations on the big packers and making them clean up their act. It’s not going to get better downstream at the small processors and grinders until that happens.
    Putting the small processors out of business is not going to fix the 0157 problem. It just puts the grinding in the hands of the large packers who will be mixing trimmings from thousands of cattle into literally tons of product. All the record recalls of recent note will look like child’s play if that happens.
    Sitting around bitching and moaning and insulting people for pointing that out doesn’t fix the problem. I hope you don’t fall off our high horse. You’ll probably end up in intensive care.
    Mr. Munsell, if you’re still reading– I’ll try to give you a call this weekend sometime.