Records reveal history of mold problems at troubled WA food plant

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @cjingalls

KING5.com

Posted on February 29, 2012 at 11:34 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 29 at 11:37 PM

Leeza Broome did what many parents do when her kids came down with upset stomachs in January – she fed them applesauce.  A nurse recommended the applesauce diet. But the result was not good.  “After that their diarrhea, both of them, got much worse,” said Broome. “My son actually had it for a month.”

Then the Lake Stevens mother saw KING 5’s investigation into Snokist Growers, a Yakima company that was recycling moldy applesauce and selling it to an unsuspecting public.

It was the same brand she fed her children last month.

“I was disgusted,” said Broome. “I was nervous and wondering is this why they were sick for so long?”

When Broome retrieved the Snokist can from her fridge, she saw black material she thought was mold in the can.

KING 5 agreed to take Broome’s Snokist applesauce, and three other cans provided by viewers who had seen the investigation, to a lab for testing.

The food scientists at the Institute for Environmental Health, in Lake Forest Park, rendered a quick decision.   They didn’t see any signs of mold in any of the cans.

They looked under the microscope at the black material from Leeza Broome’s can and determined it was harmless, discolored applesauce.

“The question was ‘do we have mold here?’ The answer is ‘no’,” said Dr. Mansour Samadpour, the owner of IEH labs.

While Snokist got a clean bill of heath from that lab, it still has challenges ahead.  The company remains under investigation by the Food and Drug Administration.
 
 Inspection records
 
The applesauce came from Snokist’s processing plant in Yakima. The 100-year-old firm processes more than 50,000 tons of apples, cherries and pears each year.

Snokist was a major supplier to the national school lunch program. Its products were purchased by the US Department of Agriculture and then shipped to school cafeterias all across the country.

As part of that, USDA inspectors were in Snokist’s plant every day for produce-grading and quality control.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the KING 5 Investigators requested inspection and sanitation records at Snokist.
The USDA responded with nearly 12,000 documents. They show that mold was a persistent problem at Snokist’s plant.

For instance, sanitation “scoresheets” from September of 2009 show inspectors found mold in 132 different places. They noted mold on conveyor belts, peelers, machinery framework and even on walls.

The following month there was even more. In October they found mold in 216 different places. Most of the violations were listed as “MJ” or major violations.

In emails to KING 5, Snokist said that mold is common in the fruit processing areas of plants like Snokist. And the company says it quickly cleaned up moldy equipment.
 
Former USDA inspector

The former USDA inspector who wrote many of those sanitation reports disagrees.
Wendy Alguard was assigned to Snokist from 2009 to 2011. She says the company was slow to act on her reports and that the amount of mold in Snokist’s plant was not typical.

“The quantity that they had was a shock to me because most places you go it will be on one tiny spot as opposed to the whole processing area,” said Alguard.

The sanitation scoresheets show that the mold problem did improve under Alguard’s watch.

Moldy applesauce
 
It was mold actually in applesauce that proved to be Snokist’s undoing.

Instead of throwing away applesauce that grew moldy in leaking 300 gallon storage bags, the company was reprocessing it. Snokist removed the mold growing on top of the applesauce and mixed the remaining puree with fresh applesauce, according to two former USDA inspectors. It then cooked the product and sold it to customers.

Last summer, Alguard tipped another government agency – the Food and Drug Administration – that Snokist was reprocessing moldy applesauce.

After receiving Alguard’s tip, the FDA determined Snokist’s “thermal” process might not eliminate harmful toxins. The agency put a stop to Snokist’s preprocessing last summer.

Alguard reported all this to the FDA because her bosses at the USDA didn’t take substantive action when she and other inspectors reported their concerns over several years.

Records show USDA officials have been aware of Snokist’s reprocessing since January of 2008. They banned the product from school lunch contracts at that time declaring it “not wholesome”, but they didn’t stop it from going to non-governmental customers like grocery store chains.
“It’s just unbelievable because you’re being paid to keep people safe and there’s nothing I can do about it,” says Alguard about USDA’s lack of action.
 
Snokist responds
 
In an email to KING 5, Snokist President and CEO Jim Davis insisted that the public was never at risk.

He said reprocessed applesauce was “commercial (sic) sterile” and that Snokist’s treatment process rendered it “safe and healthy” for the public to consume.

He also said an “extremely insignificant” amount of applesauce was reprocessed, only a small percentage of the company’s overall product.

Davis refused to provide KING 5 with a list of the companies and brands that received reprocessed product before the FDA put a halt to it last summer.
 
Snokist under the label
 
The Snokist label rarely appears on grocery store shelves. But that doesn’t mean grocery store shoppers haven’t purchased it.

The company supplies applesauce to many brand name companies, which then put their own label on the can.

The cans KING 5 tested did have Snokist labels. They came from local food banks which received the cans from the USDA. The USDA suspended its school lunch and food bank contracts with Snokist last summer when the FDA took action.

The USDA isn’t saying much about the case because of the current investigation, but the agency hasn’t instituted any recalls related to Snokist’s applesauce reprocessing.

 

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