Special Report: Food for Thought

Special Report: Food for Thought

Just how safe is the food you consume. Take a rare look inside a few local plants to learn more about the steps taken to prevent food borne illness and possibly death.
The Central Valley is the breadbasket of our world, with much of our country's food grown and produced right where we live. By the same token, local food processing plants sometimes wind up in violation of food safety practices. KSEE 24 went inside a few Valley plants to learn more about the steps taken to prevent food borne illness and possibly death.

Like the air we breathe, food is essential to our existence. Eating is not only a lifeline, but one of America's favorite pastimes. So, just how safe are the things you consume?

Fresno resident Ivadele Hughes says, " It's always a concern."

It's a concern for most, especially considering time and time again, food safety issues are brought to light with recalls and plant shutdowns. This year, three months in a row, three Central Valley food processing plants fell under fire. In January, a Foster Farms chicken plant in Livingston was shut down due to a cockroach infestation. In February, it was Hanford's Central Valley Meat Company for uncleanliness and in March, Fresno's Helados La Tapatia stripped the shelves of it's frozen treat products due to possible listeria contamination.

"It's disgusting. It's terrible," says Fresno resident Wes Whitmore.

Consumer Taraina Cart says, " It makes you really want to look at what you're eating."

KSEE 24 decided to test that very curiosity at three different food processing plants. We were granted rare access inside Fresno's Cargill Meat Solutions plant, one of the nation's largest meat suppliers, for a first hand look at how the beef we eat is produced.

375 million pounds of beef are produced at Cargill's Fresno plant every year. Ready-to-eat ground beef and steaks are sent to fast food diners, restaurants and grocery stores across the country, but not before going through intensive inspections and safety steps.

Fresno Cargill plant general manager Jon Nash says, "We need to work with a healthy paranoia every single day."

Over the last ten years, Cargill has invested a billion dollars in food safety programs and equipment; things like a cattle car wash, which washes away mud and manure. Carcasses then go through a second wash which consists of an anti-bacterial spray. Once the meat is cut, it goes through another spray and then over to an area where random samples of beef are cut and taken to a third party for testing of e-coli, salmonella and other bacteria.

USDA Inspector William Griffin says, "We take it very seriously because not only you eat this food, but we eat it also."

On top of mechanical interventions, like washes and metal detectors, employees and USDA inspectors are constantly looking for visible pathogens and monitoring sanitation.

Griffin says, "We have men and women in this agency that work tirelessly in preventing those situations from happening, but we are human and error can be there."

That's the challenge at any food processing plant. At the organic pastures dairy in Fresno County, traceability is also a crucial step.

Organic Pastures Dairy operations manager Aaron McAfee says, "We want to be able to trace back from the consumer all the way back to the cow."

The cow itself is the first critical piece of food safety, making sure no diseased or unsound animals make it into our food supply. During the milking process, it's all about minimizing the risk of bacteria.

McAfee says, "We feel that responsibility everyday, whether we're milking the cow, whether we're bottling milk or even in distribution and sales."

Check, double check and then check again. At the Horizon Nut Company in Tulare, pistachios pass through dozens of machines before being examined by the human eye. After defective nuts are pulled out, the rest are placed into a machine, to undergo what's called a "kill step."

Horizon Nut Company general manager Andrew Howe says, "We're using steam to actually heat up the nuts and kill any bacteria that's on the surface of that pistachio."

So, what happens when food is not safe? The numbers themselves may be enough to make you queasy. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in six, or 48 million Americans, will get sick from bad food every year. Three thousand people will die. The statistics may appear staggering, but when put into perspective, Fresno food science expert Jonathan Davey says the problems are actually few and far between.

Fresno City College culinary instructor Jonathan Davey says, "The United States has the safest food supply in the world. We have regulations in place that are some of the most stringent in the world."

Still, no matter how clean a food processing plant is, or how many steps are in place, sometimes pathogens slip into our food supply. For the consumer, it should be a concern, but at the same time you should enjoy the food you love to eat with a cautious confidence.

Both Cargill Meat Solutions and the Organic Pastures Dairy have experienced recalls in the past due to possible bacterial contamination, but it's been more than two years since any problems at either producer.

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