In early 2009, health departments in several states documents PFGE-matched cases of the rare strain of Salmonella rissen. As investigations into the apparent outbreak got fully underway, Salmonella rissen matching the outbreak-strain—that is, the strain isolated from the individuals infected—was isolated from ground white pepper found in three different restaurants in three of the affected states. In each instance, the ground white pepper bore a U.F. Union brand name. This discovery prompted an inspection of the U.F. Union facility in Union City, California. The inspection occurred on March 27, 2009, in accordance with the Domestic Food Safety Inspection Program. At that point, there were 42 confirmed Salmonella infections that had been linked to consumption of U.F. Union’s contaminated white pepper
The inspection conducted at U.F. Union included an examination of the facility’s pepper-handling procedures and good manufacturing practices. The inspection turned up several disturbing findings. For example, according to the final FDA 483 report, the owner was cited for six inspectional observations:
1. Failure to manufacture, package, and store foods under conditions and controls necessary to minimize the potential growth of microorganisms and contamination.
a. Private laboratory analysis results provided by the hired consultant revealed environmental samples collected from inside the facility were found positive for Salmonella.
b. Ground white pepper was stored in open barrels beneath an unscreened roof vent.
2. Failure to maintain white pepper grinding equipment in an acceptable condition through appropriate cleaning and sanitizing (an accumulation of dust was observed on multiple food contact surfaces).
3. The funnels and unlined barrels were not made of materials that allowed for proper cleaning and maintenance.
4. Failure to clean and sanitize scoops used for repackaging spices in a manner that protected against contamination of food (food residues and a thin film of dust were observed on the scoops).
5. Failure to clean non-food contact surfaces in the white pepper grinding room and the adjacent hallway as frequently as necessary to protect against contamination (accumulations of white pepper dust and brown stains were observed on multiple surfaces in the immediate vicinity of food contact surfaces).
6. Failure to maintain pipes used to convey oil (food product) in a manner that protected against contamination (oil was observed collected in pans below pipes and in a plastic bag tied around a pipe in the sauce and oil bottling room).
Additionally, of 116 environmental-swab samples collected, 46 tested positive for Salmonella (40%), while 14 of 18 in-process white pepper samples (78%), and 2 finished-product composite samples (100%) tested positive. By June 4, 2009, the U.F. Union Salmonella outbreak encompassed a total of 87 PFGE-matched cases of Salmonella rissen in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.