This is the story of a can of chili sauce that changed the way the State of Alaska handles food recalls.
The chili sauce that changed Alaska: How recalls work 040214 NEWS 1 Capital City Weekly This is the story of a can of chili sauce that changed the way the State of Alaska handles food recalls.
Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Story last updated at 4/2/2014 - 5:52 pm

The chili sauce that changed Alaska: How recalls work

This is the story of a can of chili sauce that changed the way the State of Alaska handles food recalls.

Today, it's easy for Alaskans to learn about recalls. They're distributed by email, posted online, and appear in most Alaska newspapers.

In 2007, that wasn't so. There was no organized system for distributing recall notices.

Public health suffered. Between 2000 and 2003, 26 outbreaks of foodborne illness sickened more than 500 Alaskans. According to investigations from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, most those illnesses stemmed from store-bought food contaminated during the cooking process or before purchase.

In May 2007, anonymous cans of chili sauce rolled out of an assembly line in Augusta, Ga. They were packed in anonymous cardboard boxes, loaded into anonymous trucks, and sent to anonymous stores across the country.

Americans started getting sick.

In the first weeks of July, public health departments in Indiana and Texas reported cases of botulism - deadly poisoning caused by bacteria that produce toxins.

As inspectors traced the source of the poisoning back to its source, more cases of poisoning popped up across the country.

Recalls started, but it was a creeping process. As it turned out, the chili sauce produced in Georgia was used in 91 products, all with different labels.

"That was sort of a turning point for us," said Kimberly Stryker, head of Alaska's food safety and sanitation program.

Most food recalls involve things like eggs or lettuce - food that expires quickly and gets thrown away. After a certain amount of time, the problem goes away.

With canned food, the situation is different. The cans of chili sauce recalled in 2007 had expiration dates more than two years away.

"People might have it in boats, they might have it in RVs; it's not perishable," Stryker said. "It was particularly serious."

The state worked with the Coast Guard, the National Park Service - even the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol - to spread the word about the recall.

The effort worked - no one was sickened by contaminated chili sauce or other products in Alaska, and the lessons learned during that recall have been kept close.

"We've really refined the process ourselves over the last couple of years," Stryker said. "We're really proud of the way we've been able to work with folks to get the word out."

Recall process

The office of food safety and sanitation has no records of the number of recalls issued in Alaska before 2007. After that, the state's records show a remarkable trend upward: from 12 recalls in 2007 to 42 in 2013, and nine so far in 2013.

Look deeper, suggested Jeff Gard, head of recalls for the Alaska office of food safety and sanitation.

Fully half of the recalls reported by the state don't involve contamination like botulism. Instead, they involve what's known as "allergen contamination," when packaging fails to disclose that a product may contain milk, eggs, peanuts or something else that may cause an allergic reaction.

"Milk and eggs. Those are the ones that seem to pop up, and peanuts," said Randall Pfeuffer of the office of food safety and sanitation.

Gard said that since the 2007 scare, the state has paid close attention to product recalls issued by the Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Because most Alaska food is manufactured outside the state, the FDA is the group most likely to provide inspection and early warning.

"Most of the recalls that we see through the FDA are the result of allergens not being properly displayed on their label," Gard said.

The FDA issues many recalls that Alaskans never see - the product was never distributed in Alaska, or the recall is related to a defect in quality, not one that could cause a health hazard.

It's Gard's job to distinguish between these recalls and ones that matter to Alaskans. When a recalled product is distributed in Alaska and could cause a health problem, Gard calls the company for a distribution list.

He then coordinates a response - contacting Alaska distributors and spreading the word that a dangerous product is on the loose.

Alaska grown

Sometimes, however, a product doesn't come from Outside - sometimes it comes from within Alaska.

In 2008, peas harvested from a Palmer field sickened more than 150 Southcentral residents. There was no FDA warning because the danger didn't come from Outside - it came from Inside.

In most cases, a recall is issued when an inspector finds bacteria or problems at a manufacturing plant. In those cases, products are recalled even before the first patient becomes sick.

In the 2008 case, the first sign that something was wrong came after people started getting sick.

In cases like this, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services section of epidemiology takes the lead.

"Over the years, we have had cases that have been linked to recalled food," explained Ginger Provo, a public health nurse epidemiologist.

Epidemiology relies on data, and in this case, the data stinks - it comes from fecal and vomit samples provided by sick Alaskans.

Epidemiology's work is complicated, Provo said, by the fact that most people don't go to the doctor when they get sick. Even fewer want to provide stool samples to their doctor. "Not everybody wants to play in their poop and scoop it up and bring it in," she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about one in 50 people get tested after they are sickened by a foodborne illness.

In 2005, that was enough for investigators to track the Palmer outbreak to a farm near the Palmer Hay Fields. As it turned out, sandhill cranes flying over the peafield were leaving droppings on the peas as they came in to land.

The farmer washed his peas, but only in water - there was no bleach or chlorine to sterilize them.

In more recent incidents, Alaska inspectors have uncovered problems with seafood processing in Sitka and biscotti made in Homer.


In the latter two cases, even though recalls were issued, no Alaskans were sickened. That's a good thing, Stryker said. If inspections are the first line of defense for food safety, recalls are supposed to catch what slips through.

It's difficult to tell if the system works. The state has not conducted a study of foodborne outbreaks since 2008, when the revised recall system was just one year old.

A 2010 survey conducted by the FDA indicates fewer Americans are being sickened by contaminated food even as the number of people concerned about their food grows.

Though the number of Alaska recalls seems to be rising, Stryker said she doesn't think it's a sign of trouble. Rather, it could be a sign the system is working.

I don't get the sense that people are immune to the messages about recalls. I see the articles, I see it on the news. I don't think there's too much," she said.

It's good that they're getting notification of these things and perhaps saving somebody's life."