Editor Dan Malovany reflects on a public relations disaster.

Del Rey Finds Itself in Taco Hell

I don’t know if there is such a thing called “damage control” for Del Rey Tortillera after reading the Nov. 17 cover story on its investigation into food safety and the nation’s school lunch programs.

Particularly damaging is the image of Del Rey Tortillas next to a photo of students after they puked their brains out from tacos. Maybe even more troubling is the report that local health officials in Racine, Wis., only found out after the outbreak that the Chicago-based company “had a long history of making children sick,” according to article on the front page ofUSA Today.

I’m not going to steal the thunder fromUSA Today,which reviewed thousands of pages of government documents and found out that there have been hundreds of cases of food-borne illnesses in schools and more than half of them are unexplained. The reporters tell a compelling story about how children are getting sick from an apparent lack of food safety of some of the food served in our nation’s schools.

Moreover, they describe how it’s exacerbated by bureaucratic stonewalling and a lack of communication between federal officials who are inspecting food plants and local officials who are in the dark about whether the food that they’re serving students and teachers is actually safe to eat.

The article is a must read for any bakers, snack producers or tortilla makers who even remotely think that sending products through an oven or fryer provides an adequate “kill step” for their products and that the only thing they need is an adequate dose of metal detection.

It’s not only the dairy, meat and peanut industries that need to be overly diligent about food safety and good manufacturing practices. As our recently published four-part series on improving food safety through equipment design enhancements, even low-moisture foods such as tortillas and cookies can be subject to recalls. In fact, in response to a rash of recalls, a group of sanitation professionals from the nation’s top food companies last year began to share ideas on this topic. This group, known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Sanitary Design Working Group, developed design principles for low-moisture foods that would further enhance equipment designs of all processors, their suppliers and co-manufacturers. In the series, the facilitator of that group, Joe Stout, global director, product protection and hygienic design for Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods, shared the group’s findings, including the“10 Principles of Equipment Design for Low-moisture Foods.”

Additionally, in a step to assist food manufacturers and their suppliers in identifying and implementing best sanitation design practices, eight industry organizations are jointly sponsoring a food industry sanitation workshop. The Equipment & Plant Design Workshop for Allergen/Pathogen Control is being held Feb. 9-10 in Chicago. Registration is being limited to the first 72 attendees to allow for a more interactive dialogue among participants and session leaders.

If the response is strong, and it should be, organizers say additional workshops will be considered.

Contact the American Institute of Baking, which is one of the sponsors, for more information.

It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than paying a firm to provide damage control to a public relations nightmare and to clean up a mess that could have been avoided.

Dan Malovany, editor