North Carolina takes food safety seriously

by | Mar 2, 2009

A lab employee starts culture

A lab employee starts cultures in a petri dish.

It’s always busy for the Food and Drug Protection Division, which oversees food safety regulations across the state with a staff of 28 field inspectors and four feed inspectors. But things have been particularly hectic since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a recall on Jan. 28 on thousands of peanut-based products that can be traced back to two out-of-state peanut processing plants, operated by Peanut Corp. of America, because of possible Salmonella contamination.

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In addition to trying to keep up with their routine inspections, the field inspectors have been busy scouring stores, nursing homes, schools, food banks and more to ensure that affected product is removed from the shelves and not sold or served. According to Assistant Director of Regulatory Programs Larry Gabriel, who oversees the food and feed programs, it’s been all hands on deck as 4 food supervisors, 1 training coordinator, a dairy inspector plus food and feed compliance staff have all been helping out with the recall as well. In addition, four feed inspectors and a feed supervisor have been working hard to keep up with the pet food products that have been part of the recall. Our Emergency Programs Division has also provided invaluable support staff for this effort.

“So far we have not found a lot of product on store shelves, which is kind of surprising considering the list of affected products grows every day,” said Gabriel.

To date, hundreds of samples have been taken from six N.C. firms that have been identified as having received product directly from Peanut Corp. of America. Inspectors have taken environmental samples in the plants to ensure equipment is clean and free of the bacteria, as well as product samples to see if additional products have evidence of the Salmonella bacteria. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler  has mandated that the division visit all other plants in the state that process peanut products, but have not been affected by the recall, to undergo quality assurance checks to ensure product safety. To date, no positive samples have been identified, but samples are still in the lab.

Unlike other states, North Carolina is lucky in that all but one field inspection position is filled. Other states have allowed these important positions to go unfilled to help cope with budget shortfalls, according to a recent Associated Press article. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler unsuccessfully lobbied the legislature for funding for six additional field inspectors last year.

The division’s crisis organizational model has become a model for other states to copy. Last year, the division was honored by the FDA for its quick and efficient work in removing affected product during another large recall. “I really think we have one of the top food safety programs in the country,” Gabriel said.