Federal inspectors knew of serious food safety violations at a Washington state fruit processing plant. It seemed like the kind of thing that the United States Department of Agriculture would jump on. But that’s not what happened.
Government whistleblowers tell the KING 5 Investigators that the agency was more concerned about the money Snokist was generating for the USDA than the safety of the citizens it serves.
“I think it’s pretty poor,” said Wendy Alguard, the USDA’s former inspector assigned to Snokist. “All (the USDA) is out to do is try and make money, instead of doing what their original job is, being concerned about the product and the safety of people,” said Alguard.
“Money, it’s money,” agreed Jerry Pierce, the USDA inspector who as Alguard’s predecessor at Snokist.
The inspectors say they witnessed employees “reprocessing” large bins of moldy applesauce. Snokist workers scraped mold off the top of spoiled applesauce, heat-treated the remaining applesauce and then mixed it with fresh applesauce to sell it to the public.
“It’s appalling that a company would take those measures just to make a few dollars,” said Alguard.
Both inspectors said they considered the reprocessing a health hazard and immediately reported it to their boss at the USDA.
But they say the USDA never put meaningful pressure on Snokist.
Records obtained by the KING 5 Investigators show the reprocessing continued for more than three years.
Snokist on store shelves
You may have never seen a Snokist can on your store shelf, but you may have eaten the company’s applesauce.
Snokist supplies applesauce to major brands. It ends up in grocery stores under many different store names.
The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration say they do not have a list of companies that recieved Snokist applesauce. They referred KING 5 to Snokist for that information.
Snokist declined to provide a list of the companies and grocery stores that received reprocessed applesauce.
Records filed with the government show that Snokist was supplying fruit products to the Kroger Company, Western Family Foods, Gerber, Monarch, Red Man and Costco. But those records do not reveal whether any of these companies recieved reprocessed applessauce.
An official at one company said his firm had no idea that Snokist was reprocessing applesauce.
In a written statement the USDA told KING 5 that its inspectors were “diligent” about keeping the reprocessed applesauce out of the national school lunch program. Snokist was a major supplier of fruit products and bid on school lunch contracts across the United States.
But the USDA says its employees don’t have the authority to halt questionable applesauce that could be going to non-government contracts.
The former inspectors think the USDA could have cracked down on the company, but say their boss didn’t want to lose the “fees” Snokist was paying the USDA to remain in the school lunch program.
Records obtained by the KING 5 Investigators show Snokist paid more than a half-million dollars in user fees to the USDA in just over three years. The fees pay for USDA inspections and services to monitor the food Snokist is sending to USDA programs like school lunches and food banks.
The inspectors believe their boss ignored their concerns about the applesauce because he didn’t want to lose the money Snokist’s contract brought in to the USDA.
“It was a good boost for my supervisor,” said Pierce. “It made him look good in the western region as well as Washington, DC.”
There is another case in which the USDA ignored food safety issues with severe consequences.
USDA inspectors worked at the Wright County egg plant in Galt, Iowa where rotten eggs were splattered on equipment, egg drippings coated the floor and the men’s bathroom had no sink for basic hygiene.
Plant employees complained about the unsanitary conditions. “I told the USDA officer about it and she said, ‘Well, just go back and do your job,’” said one Wright County egg plant employee.
In 2010, the plant was blamed for a salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands of people and led to the nation’s largest ever egg recall.
Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney and renowned food safety advocate, says it’s not just about money, it’s also about the USDA’s mission.
"The USDA has an arm that's interested in food safety, but the vast majority of it is interested in purchasing food and getting it to the public," Marler said.
The agency promotes agricultural products, an important role, and may be reluctant to play the part of food police.
“The goal shouldn't be just let's grease the skids to get good food from the farm to your kids lunch plate," said Marler. “There's got to be oversight and food safety concerns along the way"
In principal, the USDA has agreed with that. In a memorandum of understanding with the US Food and Drug Administration, the USDA agrees to report food serious food safety issues spotted by its employees.
"This memorandum of understanding between the FDA and USDA has been around for a long time,” said Marler. “It just doesn't work."
Inspectors claim retaliation
Meanwhile, both inspectors believe they were punished for pressing the issues over Snokist’s moldy applesauce. Wendy Alguard tipped the FDA to Snokist’s applesauce reprocessing. The agency quickly put a stop to it.
Alguard says the USDA tried to transfer her to a less desirable job in California. She was fired late last year after refusing the assignment.
Jerry Pierce says his career was tarnished, as well. He retired from the USDA at the end of 2011.
The USDA inspector who worked at Snokist before Pierce was also terminated by the agency.
A USDA spokesperson denies that there was any retaliation involved.