FDA Warning Letters This Week 3/1/17

warning-letters

The week goes by and new letters come out. Looks like we’ve only got one food letter this week so let’s get into it.

Don’t know what warning letters are? Check out this post for a brief overview of what they are and why FDA sends them out.

WL# CMS Case 517876 (man, they really aren’t consistent with this numbering system, are they?)

Subject: Seafood HACCP/CGMP for foods/adulterated/insanitary conditions

Our first finding here is once again a failure to follow the seafood HACCP requirements. As we’ve discussed on this blog before, companies that produce Juice and Seafood have specific critical control points and HACCP plans spelled out in the regulations. Oftentimes small companies or importers who have never been inspected, or were never aware of what their requirements were, violate or do not put these programs in place. Because this is considered an imminent threat to food safety, FDA almost always issues a warning letter. Most of what you see are companies that just straight up don’t have the programs in place, rather than specific violations.

This particular firm falls into this category, and we’ll see from the responses they already provided to FDA in this warning letter that they clearly don’t have someone on staff familiar with the regulations required of them, or a genuine appreciation for the ones that actively protect food safety. FDA noted that the HACCP finding is based on the fact that the company simply didn’t have one for the product. It’s possible that because the name of the company doesn’t imply that it manufactures a lot of seafood (check the warning letter to see what I mean), they may have started making this ingredient recently before fully understanding what was required of them. This doesn’t change the fact that the firm demonstrated poor understanding of certain food safety and regulatory requirements in general. For example, in response to not having the HACCP plan, they told FDA that they would look into it in response.

FDA said ‘lol, no’, you can’t just keep making food outside of a critical food safety regulation until you decide to get around to it.

In your letter, you agree that your firm has no HACCP plan in place.  You included a statement that you will seek “further information regarding obtaining this HACCP plan” for your firm; however, your response is not adequate. You did not provide a timeframe of when a HACCP plan will be established and implemented, and your response does not provide assurances that your firm will process this product under an adequate HACCP plan.

finger-quotes
This “HACCP Plan”

We’ll look into this “HACCP plan” thingy, whatever it may be, is not an adequate response. The firm violated a spelled out regulatory requirement, required to produce seafood products safely, and the fact that they had no idea what it was means demonstrated that that there isn’t any regulatory review or knowledge at the plant. Either this changes after this wake-up call, or FDA will eventually stop them from selling seafood having seen no effort made to be in compliance.

If you are interested in HACCP, I’ll probably cover many basic principles throughout this blog, but there are many people much smarter and experienced than me who have written solid books on the subject that can be very helpful for the studious. Otherwise there are a ton of classes and free online materials out there, go find what works for you!

For the purpose of addressing the manufacturers comments to FDA, let’s just say that HACCP is a food safety control system that requires not just “the plan” on file, but actual actions and documented controls during production based on that plan. Basically, the company saying “we’ll get one of those” is inadequate even if they were to get a paper copy stored somewhere onsite.

It would be like me asking you to get a job, and you responding that you’ll work on getting a job description to show me. You didn’t really get what I was asking for, and the piece of paper itself isn’t going to cut it.

On sanitation:

our investigator observed the interior surfaces of your shrimp roaster and shrimp grinder… contained red colored shrimp residues. An employee told our investigator the equipment had last been used in October, approximately two months prior to this observation…In your December 26th response, you stated that your employees had thoroughly cleaned the interior and exterior of the roaster of dried red colored shrimp residue. However, your response is not adequate. Your response did not address the cleaning and condition of the shrimp grinder, which was the other piece of equipment colored residues were observed.  Furthermore, you did not provide any corrective action to ensure this problem will not recur.

So a couple things here. First, this is a weird finding in some ways, because in general dirty equipment is dirty equipment, as long as it isn’t being used before getting cleaned it doesn’t pose a food safety risk necessarily in the same way a dirty cereal bowl in your sink isn’t a food safety risk. However, accumulation of food debris on equipment just hanging out in the plant is a source for microbial contamination and a pest attractant, and two months is pretty long to hang onto something covered with bits of shrimp (or spoiled milk residues in the aforementioned cereal bowl). FDA may have also suspected that the equipment was either being used in that condition, or would be used in that condition without cleaning.

The company’s response was inadequate because they didn’t actually say they cleaned each piece of equipment FDA identified as dirty (and should have included pictures as well).

“Honey, please pick Tommy up from basketball practice and Sue from daycare tomorrow”

“Okay, I picked up Sue! Are we done here?”

No, you’re missing something there. The other reason the response was inadequate is that FDA wants companies to demonstrate why this wouldn’t be a finding the next time they visit. Something along the lines of “we created a new equipment inspection program and policy where equipment may not sit idle for more than two days or a weekend without being cleaned of any residues. This is audited by our QA guy and the staff was trained…”. Just answering with “we did this because FDA asked us to” does not give confidence that the same situation won’t just happen when FDA isn’t there.

During our inspection, our investigator observed the hand washing sink located in the processing area lacked running water of suitable temperature for employees to adequately wash their hands, and the water running from this sink was not clear, but yellowish in color. In your December 26th response, you stated that the “water level flow has been cleared so that the water is clear” and your employees were “told to use so that water does not sit and get that yellow coloring.” Your response is not adequate because it does not address correction to the water temperature.

FDA requires warm/hot water for handwashing to be available, and certain standards require the water to turn hot within X seconds. In this facility, hot water was not plumbed to the sink or was on the fritz, and the water coming out was yellow in color, an indicator of pipe corrosion or some other issue.

The firms response was inadequate because they once again didn’t address all the issues. They focused on the yellow coloring by saying the lines just needed to be flushed. I pick up on this as another indicator that handwashing wasn’t actually taking place on this line since the water was stagnant and employees were “told to use” the sink from now on.

But even though the color was spoken for, the company didn’t continue and address the lack of hot water! Either they didn’t read their 483 or were hoping they could let that one slide by. Clearly FDA paid attention to the response and didn’t let it sneak through (good job FDA!).

On December 6, 2016, our investigator observed the wooden shelves in your outside shrimp drying room contained green colored shrimp residues and apparent insect excrement…In your December 26th response, you stated that the outside drying room was cleaned of the green shrimp residues as well as any droppings. However, your response is not adequate because you did not provide any corrective action to ensure this problem will not recur. You must take effective measurements to ensure pests are excluded from your food processing facility.

So residues of shrimp and insect excrement found on shelves inside a drying room. Once again they said “okay, we cleaned it up”, but FDA wants to know they’ll actually keep it clean and, for good measure, keep pests out of their food facility.

As a matter of fact, FDA ended up saying that directly:

 No pests shall be allowed in any area of a food plant. Effective measures shall be taken to exclude pests from the processing areas and to protect against the contamination of food on the premises by pests, as required by 21 CFR 110.35(c). However, on December 6, 2016, our investigator observed the following:
a.  Apparent insect excrement, too numerous to count, were observed on a wooden ledge in the upstairs packing and storage area. Directly below the ledge were wooden crates storing unpackaged [products].
b.  Apparent insect excrement, too numerous to count, were observed on wooden shelves and directly on top of a brown-paper packaged bulk raw ingredient product, which were stored on the shelves, in the downstairs processing room.
Additionally, our investigator observed apparent termite damage on the wooden ledge and shelves of your noodle packing and storage areas. During our inspection, you informed our investigator that you were aware of termite issues in the building.

Here we’ve learned a few things. First, we now know that the “excrement” noted in the findings must be termite frass (google away). Second, the manufacturer noted that they use a facility with a known pest problem. Pest infestations are expensive to fix, but if you produce food, it’s not something you get to choose to ignore. FDA responded saying that the corrective actions to move products out of the area and place a tarp over the termite damage “did not address how you will correct the termite problem in your food processing building (emphasis FF&F) and you did not provide the action you had taken to resolve the presence of the numerous insect excrements we observed…”

Next time you are in a fast food restaurant, look around and see if you can spot an insect light trap (ILT). Often they’re decorative like the one in the link, and they work super well at immediately attracting bugs that make it through the door (or other openings). Facilities with preventative pest control will have these in areas where they will be most effective, attracting pests away from sensitive areas. This would have been a good step to try and prevent termite infestation or reinfestation, but at this point the problem is persistent, uncertain, and expensive.

our investigator observed your employee standing on top of a table adjacent to the dough hopper wearing street shoes, and a metal scrapper used to scrape in-process dough from the mixer into the hopper was stored on the table approximately ¼” away from the employee’s street shoes. In your December 26th response, you stated you will move the hopper slightly away from the standing employee shoveling dough and that the scraper will be placed away from the surface of the hopper. We will verify the adequacy of your corrections during our next inspection.

Here the company responded well and addressed the complete finding. First, the hopper was too close to the employee’s shoes (and thus, dust/dirt/fecal material and anything else they may have walked though on the ground), they got it moved away. Second, they moved the product contact tool away from a walking surface where it could have been contaminated. An easy fix, but they did it. FDA noted that they will inspect for it next time, which means they were satisfied. In other cases, FDA might still take issue if this type of tool storage was pervasive, and determine that this kind of response is inadequate. If there were multiple similar situations in the plant, they might not believe people will stop storing tools in these areas just because you corrected it once.

your firm uses wooden materials as direct food contact surfaces in the manufacturing of dried [product]. Our investigator observed in-process products were in direct contact with wooden racks, dowels, and crates, which were in disrepair, worn, and not easily cleanable

wooden-spoonWood + food=nono. While if properly cleaned, dried, and monitored for damage it can be used in the home, wood is still a porous material that can hold water and support the growth of microorganisms, and old wood can break apart and introduce foreign material (splinters) into products. The firm here says they’ll think about replacing these materials with plastic or coating them with plastic, so some of it must be specialty equipment they need to address and not just spatulas and spoons that could be easily and cheaply swapped out. This should be an easy fix for the company, however the storage crates could be a significant expense. Plastic crates aren’t cheap and they may need a lot of them to replace their wood ones.

Considering starting a food company and don’t know what sanitation standard you should meet? Many companies who receive warning letters fail to meet similar requirements enforced at the restaurant level, so check out the food code as a good place to start in an easy-to-follow format. If you think you can meet that standard, check out FDA’s extremely helpful page: How to Start a Food Business.

The information is out there for those who care to seek it.