Darwin’s pet food owner knew of pathogens in production plant

The producer of Darwin’s brand raw pet foods knew about Salmonella in its plant, fielded more than 300 consumer complaints about sick or dead pets, and racked up a laundry list of food safety violations in 2017, according to government inspectors.

Investigators from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) identified numerous problems at Arrow Reliance Inc., doing business as Darwin’s Natural Pet Products. They undertook the December 2017 inspection in response to an ongoing pattern of product recalls and a consumer complaint received in October 2017.

Gary Tashjian, president and owner of Darwin’s, told the inspectors his company hadn’t received any specific complaints regarding Salmonella, E. coli or Listeria, according to a draft report from the inspectors. He said if consumers complained of pets’ illnesses, they would have to provide Darwin’s with test results from a veterinarian before the company would test its retained samples of implicated products. Only if the retained sample also tested positive would Darwin’s initiate a recall Tashjian told inspectors.

This week Darwin’s issued its fifth product recall since October 2016 after the Food and Drug Administration found Salmonella in four of its products. One of those products also was contaminated with E. coli O128.

According to the draft inspection report, obtained from WSDA by Food Safety News through a public records request, a review of the pet food company’s own records revealed much of the information that shows Darwin’s owners were aware of the pathogen problems.

Darwin did not have a written sanitation plan at the time of the inspection, according to the draft report.

The company was performing in-house pathogen testing that included screening for Salmonella. Darwin’s logs showed the company found Salmonella on the handle of a hand cart and the wheel of a garbage can that were on the processing floor in September. There was no documentation of a repeat test after the contaminated items were cleaned.

Similarly, an Aug. 24, 2017, log entry documented failure of the trench drain by the grinder. Again, there was no mention of corrective action.

Thermometer verification logs also showed several failures, with no corrective action documented.

Inspectors reported that Darwin’s maintains a record of customer complaints. During the period from Jan. 5, 2017, through Dec. 5, 2017, the company logged 332 complaint entries, including complaints of foreign material, spoiled and leaking packages, and pet illnesses and deaths.

More than one-third of the complaints — 36 percent — related to sickness. Ten percent were for foreign objects, including metal, plastic, rubber bands, produce bands and ties, hairnet material, and a pebble.

In addition to reporting on Darwin’s records, investigators recorded the following general “objectionable” conditions:

  • Failure to conduct operations under cGMPs (current Good Manufacturing Practices);
  • Raw materials were not thawed under conditions that would minimize the potential for growth of undesirable pathogens;
  • Animal food contact surfaces not made of appropriate materials or maintained to protect animal food from becoming contaminated; and
  • Equipment and utensils not used appropriately to avoid adulteration of animal food with contaminants.

Inspectors also cited the following specifics in their report:

  • A mallet with raw meat material on it was on a rack used to store sanitized equipment in the sanitizing room;
  • 4-wheeled hand cart with two shelves covered with wet cardboard containing raw meat. Cart was touching a food preparation surface. Buckets used to carry and mix micro ingredients and phage preparation stored on the cart. Cart handle was broken and surface appeared to not be cleanable;
  • Dirty tool from processing floor placed on top of sanitized yellow pallet;
  • Food preparation table grooved and not cleanable;
  • Flashing between wall and floor and behind prep table was damaged and contained meat debris;
  • Employee observed breaking down dirty cardboard boxes with gloved hands and returning to processing floor without changing gloves or sanitizing;
  • Freezer box “B” had bloody and rusted metal racks; bloody floors and boxes storing frozen meat; organic material behind racks;
  • Cooler box “A” had bloody boxes of meat and vegetables stored on metal racks and pallets with organic material behind racks;
  • Cardboard boxes containing raw meat were observed leaking and dripping blood onto boxes stored below and onto adjacent boxes, pallets and metal racks;
  • Wooden pallets and metal racks not maintained or designed to be cleaned in a manner that protects ingredients against contamination;
  • Fork lift was observed moving from the receiving/loading dock, over the packing floor, through Box A and into the raw product prepping room;
  • Employees were wearing dirty boots in sanitation room and on process floor;
  • Damaged wall in preparation room;
  • Cement floor under hoses chipped and broken away. An approximately 12-inch x 12-inch hole was observed in first layer of cement;
  • Employee pocket knife observed on food contact service;
  • Door stops and upright pillar stops pitted and rusted;
  • Slider door between prep room and temping room rusted and dirty; and
  • Recycled wooden pallets noted in processing area at end of packing line.

FDA advice to consumers
People who think they might have become ill due to exposure to contaminated raw pet food or the feces of pets that have eaten contaminated raw pet food should talk to their health care providers.

Contact your health care provider if you have diarrhea that lasts for more than three days, or is accompanied by high fever, blood in the stool, or so much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down and you pass very little urine.

People who think their pets have become ill after consuming contaminated raw pet food should contact their veterinarians. Veterinarians who wish to have dogs tested for Salmonella may do so through the Vet-LIRN Network if the pet is from a household with a person infected with Salmonella.

The FDA encourages consumers to report complaints about this and other pet food products electronically through the Safety Reporting Portal or by calling their state’s FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinators.

This story first appeared in Food Safety News and is reposted here with permission.