Editorial

From public health investigators who just wouldn't give up the search for a rare salmonella variety to a regional dairy that left no stone unturned once the elusive pathogen was traced to its plant, you've got to celebrate the way the food safety system worked in the final weeks of August.

Umpqua Dairy Products, Co., which distributes in three states from its plant in Roseburg, Ore., made its very first internal processing product recall in 80 years a textbook example of how to do it right.

In case you missed the story, which broke on Aug. 18, here's a brief summary: Since last October, epidemiologists at Oregon's Public Health Division have tracked occasional reports of Salmonella braenderup, a rare gastrointestinal illness. They couldn't find the source.

Finally, in early August, they established Umpqua products as a common thread. Sampling at the plant turned up some salmonella on surfaces of the machine that washes crates used to ship Umpqua milk and juice products.

Lab tests came back positive Aug. 18. Umpqua closed the plant and took it apart. It issued a voluntary recall. Through friends in the dairy industry, replacement product processed at other plants was turned out starting Aug. 19, giving grocers good milk almost as rapidly as recalled product was hauled away.

By Aug. 24, the case-washing machine and the whole plant had an unqualified certificate issued by the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Division.

One week after lab tests triggered the recall and plant-wide sanitizing, grocers were placing cases of Umpqua milk and juice back on their shelves.

Doug Feldkamp, spokesman for the second generation of his family to run Umpqua, late last week was still working through restarting the distribution system, rather than analyzing what went right about the affair.

But he had an observation that applies to all of us who produce food:

"You've got to look at every part of your operation" again and again. It also helped that Umpqua had a "crisis management" plan that identified other dairy processors with capability to turn out certain products if Umpqua had to suspend operations.

Along with the Feldkamps and their Umpqua team, credit goes to Paul Cieslack, manager of the state Public Health Division's communicable disease section. Not only did investigators stick with it as the few cases of a rare form of salmonella kept recurring, they made the connection.

Figure the odds, if the 23 reported cases came from salmonella bacterium on the outside of a milk or juice container, statistically that's something on the order of 1 infection for every 3 million containers coming out of the plant. They found the needle in the haystack, and we are all the better for their work.

Let's hear it for the food safety system, doing it right.

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