For years now, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC) has been telling anyone that would listen that the nation’s food-handling industry needs a serious upgrade. The recent nationwide Salmonella scare is yet another event the MDAC is pointing to as example of how crucial safe food handling is.
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broadened its recall of products after scores of Americans across the nation became ill with Salmonella Typhimurium, which can lead to a form of human gastroenteritis that kills millions, particularly children, worldwide each year.
The investigation by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that the tainted products made by some of the largest and well-known food manufacturers traced back to a peanut-processing plant in Georgia owned by Peanut Corporation of America. The plant manufactures peanut butter and peanut paste, a concentrated product consisting of ground, roasted peanuts, that are both distributed to food manufacturers to be used as an ingredient in many commercially produced products including cakes, cookies, crackers, candies, cereal and ice cream.
Unfortunately, those products had already made it to stores in Mississippi before it was detected. Getting out the word and taking these products off store shelves has been a monumental undertaking, and MDAC is still working with retail food entities in Mississippi to make sure all possibly tainted product is accounted for and out of circulation.
Andy Prosser, director of marketing and public relations at MDAC, said the agency’s current efforts are no departure from the past. MDAC has long worked as a link between the federal government and local food retailers.
“Since we established our Consumer Protection Division years ago, nothing has changed,” Prosser said.
That is not to say the MDAC is standing pat. In fact, just last month the agency launched a new color-coded placard system for retail food inspections aimed at making the general food-buying public feel better about the safety of their food as well as bring to bear stores’ responsibility to offer safe, healthy products. This system was being developed by MDAC before the Salmonella scare.
While inspections of restaurants and eateries falls under the auspices of the Mississippi State Department of Health, checking on grocery and convenience stores is the duty of MDAC. MDAC is implementing the system to give consumers an easier and more thorough way of evaluating the safety of stores’ products.
The placards have four color codes:
• Green, if the facility does not have a critical violation or if the violation(s) was corrected at the time of inspection;
• Green “Conditional Pass,” if the establishment has a critical violation(s) that was corrected at the time of inspection.
• Yellow, if the establishment has a critical violation(s) that was not corrected at the time of inspection or a critical violation(s) repeated from the last inspection or repeated excessive non-critical violations; and,
• Red, if the establishment has failed due to a serious food sanitation violation that is a risk to public health and safety.
Critical violations under the FDA Food Code are defined as those that can contribute to food contamination, illness or are considered a potential health hazard. A non-critical violation is less likely to contribute to this.
MDAC stressed that it is not changing the definition of a critical or non-critical violation in the food code or the way it conducts a food sanitation inspection. It is implementing this color-coded placard system to make consumers more aware of the sanitation conditions of the retail food establishment(s) in which they shop.
Prosser said MDAC did not take the implementation of this new system lightly. The agency sent out a letter to all of the establishments under its responsibility offering an overview of the new system. A public response period was conducted in December, and that feedback was weighed carefully.
“For instance, some stores pointed out that they were not large concerns like Wal-Mart, and we tried to adjust the program accordingly,” he said. “We tried to be pro-consumer as well as pro-business with the new system.”
Prosser added that the new system offers more than an easy-to-read guide. It also puts responsibility on the stores. Consumers may ask for MDAC’s report at anytime. Thus, it behooves managers and owners to be extra vigilant when choosing suppliers.
The new system was officially launched Jan. 15. Prosser said the MDAC could not blitz all stores in a day. It will take time, but the color-coded placards will be seen statewide soon.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.