Plainview Milk recall not as clear cut as communicated by FDA

Late last week, Plainview Milk Products Cooperative, Plainview, Minn., voluntarily recalled two years worth of instant nonfat dried milk, whey protein, fruit stabilizers, and gums (thickening agents) because they might be contaminated with salmonella. Plainview stopped production of these products and notified its industry customers last week of the recall by phone, fax and registered letter. See the FDA release, here.

The FDA became aware of this problem through the U. S. Department of Agriculture. USDA found salmonella in DairyShake powder, in 100-gram pouches that were not for retail sale. The FDA then identified Plainview as the primary source of the contamination. David W.K. Acheson, M.D, associate commissioner for foods in the Food and Drug Administration, referred to the recall as a matter of public health. Problem solved?

Not exactly. A chain of events—with documents to prove—shows that the Plainview milk product was free of contamination until it was blended with as many as nine other ingredients to make a product called DairyShake Powder blend. According to Dallas Moe, general manager, Plainview Milk Products Cooperative, "Product safety is our first priority and none of the Plainview products that were tested by government agencies and our independent labs found any signs of product contamination. After the product cleared quality testing and left our facility it was blended with other ingredients, and that's when contamination was found, but in situations like this it's in the public's best interest to be overly cautious."

The supply chain for ingredients such as milk powder and whey can be multifaceted. Plainview sells its products to other customers who may incorporate them into their own products, which are then sold to a food manufacturing and branding company. DairyShake is a common blend used for MREs for the military and in protein beverage mixes.

In this case, USDA testing found salmonella in a product produced by one of Plainview's customers—not Plainview. So while Plainview follows an overly cautious plan as advised by FDA, the question remains: What is the actual source of the contamination? Plainview has certificates of analysis showing their nonfat milk was free of salmonella until it was added to as many as nine other ingredients. Is Plainview an easily identifiable scapegoat as the source of the primary ingredient, or is there more to the story, namely whether the sources of the eight or nine other ingredients could be the potential source of contamination?

Even this question has no simple answer. To add to the intricacy, an investigation of the Plainview facility—after the salmonella DairyShake discovery—led FDA to realize that some of Plainview's equipment was contaminated with salmonella, though as of press time, still not any actual product.

The Plainview situation has hints of the salsa recall, which initially implicated tomato growers, then salsa makers, only to find out the source of contamination was jalapeños. Traceability is a complicated and looming issue for processed foods. Looking for a needle in a haystack is easy compared to tracking down 9 lesser ingredients in DairyShake blends or multiple ingredients in salsa.

"We have lots of products that have ingredients that come from all over the world and so it becomes extremely difficult to accurately identify the origin of a processed product that contains ingredients from many different countries accurately," said University of Manitoba food safety expert Dr. Rick Holley at a recent conference on traceability at the University of Manitoba.

"There are costs associated with implementing that kind of identification, yet the value of course is in terms of the ability that that knowledge provides in allowing a processor to track back the particular product to the date that it was manufactured so that a reasonable effort can be made in recalling a product when one knows what the destination of that product was…The traceability not only includes what went into the product but also where that product was shipped," Holley says.

At this time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not linked any human illnesses to potentially contaminated products from the Plainview facility. It is not yet known how widespread the recall is or whether it will affect other finished products than DairyShake blends. Plainview makes fruit stabilizers and gums that are commonly used in jams and jellies. Whey at one time was considered a marginal product used solely in baking mixes and powdered beverages, but now the products has greater use as a functional ingredient for weight management and way to bump up the protein levels in bread, pizza, cereal, liquids, seafood, and snack bars.

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