In the food industry, there's many different levels of food producers. From companies that harvest and distribute fresh produce, to businesses that convert foods into ingredient items like powdered milk and fruit juice concentrates, to producers that use those ingredients to make everything from Twinkies to chef-quality ravioli, it's a complex system of connectivity.
When it comes to ingredients manufacturers, several companies will often purchase from the same supplier. So, if that supplier is affected by a food contamination outbreak and recall, all of the businesses that purchased ingredients from that supplier are affected as well, creating a catastrophic amount of recalls and turning into a massive nightmare for the food industry.
You hope that these outbreaks don't happen. Unfortunately, one of these began a couple of months ago and has grown to affect over TWENTY different businesses.
Food Safety News, who has been keeping track of all of the recalls related to this original supplier, first reported the supplier's "recall" in November. I have recall in quotes because it wasn't as much of a recall as it was a seizure and forced recall.
Milk ingredients producer, Valley Milk Products, was found to have Salmonella in their plant in Strasburg, Virginia. This was based on company records that showed Salmonella to have contaminated their plant as well as some powdered milk and buttermilk products. Usually, when this happens, a company reports it to the FDA immediately, whereupon recalls and the sanitation process can begin, similar to what happened with Sabra's voluntary hummus recall late last year.
Valley Milk Products, however, chose to not report their findings to the FDA, and the test results weren't uncovered until a surprise inspection from the FDA in late September. Afterwards, the FDA requested armed US Marshals to seize over 4 million pounds of powdered milk products from the Strasburg facility, and began informing companies who use the powdered milk products that there was a Salmonella contamination issue with that ingredient. Valley Milk Products also had to recall an additional 3.1 million pounds of powdered milk products a couple of weeks later, bringing their total losses to over $7 million from this seizure and recall.
While the FDA doesn't make full reports of their inspections public, they did release a statement regarding the Valley Milk Products inspection following the seizure. They noted that along with the salmonella contamination, there were extremely poor sanitary conditions in the milk processing plant, and did ask Valley Milk Products to conduct a voluntary recall. It was the refusal of this voluntary recall that led to the seizure of their products.
Since then, several companies have issued voluntary recalls of their own products that contain the contaminated powdered milk, doing their best to ensure that Salmonella exposure to the public is limited. Considering Salmonella is one of the more infamous food-borne pathogens, and can be fatal in elderly, infant, or sick populations. Healthy populations can still experience gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting, and sometimes even develop severe arthritis.
For those of you wondering what types of products have been recalled containing the powdered milk, here is a compiled list, courtesy of Food Safety News:
Dairy definitely encompasses a wide variety of products, and with the level of supply Valley Milk Products had going on, there's no wonder so many businesses and products were affected. The good news is that all of these above recalls were voluntary, Salmonella wasn't detected in their actual products, and no illnesses related to the outbreak have been reported. That's in part thanks to all of these companies being highly vigilant in their part of the recall process.
As for Valley Milk Products, there's no telling what their future will hold. As one of the largest powdered milk suppliers that has ceased production for now, it definitely hurts a lot of companies that rely on the powdered milk for product manufacturing. There's also the consideration of criminal charges that has to be taken into account.
Likely, Valley Milk will face similar charges as food industry giant ConAgra, who recently paid an $8 million fine and lost an additional $3.2 million in assets for a misdemeanor charge related to a massive peanut butter outbreak a decade ago. ConAgra knowingly distributed Salmonella-containing peanuts to distributors like Peter Pan, where a massive Salmonella outbreak infecting over 700 people was traced back to.
While this contamination has involved no illnesses so far, Valley Milk and ConAgra have committed similar crimes of knowingly distributing contaminated products. While ConAgra's was more serious and led to the largest fine in food criminal history, Valley Milk still has a lot to answer for — and its accountability spreads to a much larger section of the food industry.
We'll be keeping an eye on the recall process, as several companies are still recalling products weekly.