Federal inspectors told to ignore moldy food at local plant

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @cjingalls

KING5.com

Posted on February 13, 2012 at 10:45 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 14 at 1:37 PM

The KING 5 Investigators have learned that federal inspectors complained for years about significant food safety violations at a Yakima plant but their superiors didn’t put a stop to it.

"I thought it was terrible because I have never seen anything like that in my life," said Jerry Pierce, a recently retired U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector who was assigned to the Snokist Growers plant in 2008. He said he watched Snokist employees “reprocess” and sell applesauce that belonged in the garbage bin.

“It's appalling that the company would take those measures just to make a few dollars," said Wendy Alguard, the USDA inspector who worked at Snokist from 2009 until the summer of last year. 

Snokist Growers is a century-old cannery that processes and packages 50,000 tons of cherries, apples, pears and plums each year. The inspectors say that leaks in the packaging would cause 300 gallon bags of applesauce to spoil. Snokist would scrape thick mold off the top of the spoiled applesauce, heat-treat the remaining product and then send it down the production line for sale to the public.

“I thought it was wrong, my goodness,” said Pierce.

Blowing the whistle

The KING 5 Investigators obtained public records showing Snokist reprocessed more than 23,000 gallons of moldy applesauce in the year 2010 alone. Other records show Snokist's own consultant concluded in 2009 that the mold in applesauce "would not be eliminated by your firm's thermal process." Records show the company continued selling it to customers.

The inspectors say they repeatedly told their boss about the moldy applesauce.

"I guess they promised my boss they wouldn't do it again and within a week they were doing it again,” said Pierce.

"I had contact with my boss many times and he basically told me to mind my own business," said Alguard.

Food chain

The USDA had inspectors in Snokist’s plant because the company is a major supplier to the national school lunch program. The USDA grades and certifies food deemed acceptable for school lunches. Alguard and Pierce say they did their best to make sure that reprocessed applesauce didn’t get into school lunch food. However, they could not stop it from going to non-government buyers like grocery store chains. Consumers were often buying Snokist product without even knowing it. The company processes and packages fruit for many major brands, which distribute the product to stores under their own labels.

Snokist declined to provide KING 5 with a list of distributors, brands and grocery stores which it supplied with reprocessed applesauce.  The USDA and Food and Drug Administration says it does not have records of companies that Snokist supplies.

FDA steps in

It was another government agency that finally put a stop to Snokist’s recycling of fruit products. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came to the Yakima plant after 18 North Carolina school children got sick from eating Snokist applesauce. The FDA determined that packaging defects caused the applesauce to spoil, not reprocessing of moldy applesauce.

“I approached (the FDA inspectors) and told them I wanted to talk to them,” said Alguard. Her tip led the FDA to put an immediate stop to the re-processing of applesauce. The FDA investigation is continuing and Snokist lost its school lunch contract with the FDA.

USDA Response

In a written statement to KING 5 News, the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service said it had limited authority to stop shipments of non-government food.

"Snokist is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and is currently under investigation. Thanks to the diligent efforts of Agricultural Marketing Service employees with authority limited to solely grading Snokist products, only products made with wholesome ingredients were allowed to enter the stream of commerce with USDA approval.  In 2011 USDA signed an agreement with the Food and Drug Administration that strengthens its oversight and reporting powers that will provide additional authority to stop bad actors in the future. This agreement is part of an ongoing effort by USDA to make unprecedented  improvements to food safety."

Up Next:  On Tuesday, the KING 5 Investigators take a deeper look at reasons why the USDA would turn a blind eye to food safety violations outside of government contracts.

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