How Unscrupulous Food Manufacturers Manipulate Lab Tests

In yesterday’s Peanut Corp. post, our commenter microguy07828 left a detailed explanation of how food manufacturers sometimes play dirty when it comes to getting the lab results they want on a product. We though it deserved more visibility in light of yesterday’s accusation that the Peanut Corp. of America knowingly shipped tainted peanut butter. As microguy07828 puts it, it “happens more often than you would think.”

As someone who has worked in Industrial Microbiology for over 16 years, I can tell you that the situation described here happens more often than you would think.

The main goal of any manufacturing plant is to get the product out the door, so that they can get paid by their customer. Some manufacturing plants will do whatever they can to get microbiologically failing product to market and cover their butts in the process. From my experience, some of the most common tricks dishonest manufacturers try to pull are as follows.

1) Test to Compliance – Microbiological contamination is often not evenly distributed throughout a product. That means that it is possible that if you retest a sample, test another container or another part of the batch, you may not pick up the objectionable organism. If you are testing for overall bacterial or fungal count, it is possible the count on the retest may be lower. Some companies with failing products will continue to send in samples of the same product until they get passing data. They then destroy all of the failing data and are left with a lab report showing that their product is acceptable.

2) Combining Failing Batches with Passing Batches – If a batch is failing for overall bacteria or fungal count, some companies will blend the failing product into passing product to dilute the microbiological contamination to acceptable levels. Lot numbers for the product are then altered to cover their tracks. They then destroy all of the failing data and are left with a lab report showing that their product is microbiologically acceptable.

3) They Purposely Mislabel Samples – If a product fails microbiological testing, some companies will remove the failing product from the sample package and substitute passing product. Now the sample that is sent to the lab has the failing product’s lot number on it, but the sample material inside is passing product. Once the testing is complete, the company receives a lab report showing that the failing product passed testing. They then destroy all of the failing data and are left with a lab report showing that their product is acceptable.

4) They Use a Different Laboratory – All contract microbiology laboratories are not created equal. They run the gamut from a state-of-the-art building with tens of thousands of square feet of work space to a mom and pop operation operating in a two room suite in an office complex. The quality of work these laboratories perform and the reliability of data they produce can vary greatly. If a product is failing at one laboratory, some manufacturers will just send their samples to other laboratories until they get results that they like. The big question is always “Does the manufacturer want the best quality data or do they want passing data?” The truthful answer is that it depends on the customer.

5) They Use Their “Alternate” Laboratory – If I told you that there were microbiology laboratories out in the world that accepts samples, never tests them and then issues passing reports, would you believe it?

6) They Mislead Their Microbiology Laboratory – Sometimes companies will request that their microbiology laboratory change lot numbers on reports, claiming they mistakenly wrote incorrect lot numbers on the incoming sample submission sheets. The microbiology laboratory may innocently and unknowingly provide documentation that allows failing product to ship.

7) They Bully the Microbiology Laboratory – Sometimes manufacturers with failing product request that the microbiology laboratory provide them with a report indicating passing data. Sometimes they remind the laboratory of how much revenue they generate for them. They even may threaten to pull their business is the microbiology laboratory refuses to comply. Money can be a powerful motivator.

8) They Find Another Laboratory – If the microbiology laboratory a manufacturer is using refuses to cave in and help them cover their tracks, the manufacturer may just find another laboratory that will “play ball” with them.

Now my disclaimer: What I have listed above represents my opinion and experience. The vast majority of manufacturers and microbiology laboratories are honest and work hard to do the right things. However, money is a powerful motivator. With product batches that can be worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, some rouge companies will do whatever they can to prevent product loss. Some are even willing to put the health and well-being of the public at risk.

I do not mean in any way to imply that The Peanut Corporation of America engaged in any type of wrongdoing. Everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. I have no doubt that the FDA will determine the root cause of this situation and take any necessary corrective action.

(Photo: adamjtaylor)