Bent, Folded and Mutilated: When Food Safety Wasn't Job No. 1

It's easier to know where you're going if you know where you've been. Since the theme of Food Processing's September cover story is the food processing plant of tomorrow, I've been thinking a lot lately about how plants have changed over the years.

Decades before my first detailed evaluation of a cereal plant, I had a distant connection with the world's largest cereal manufacturing facility. I was a boy too young to work but in need of $15 for a school sports program. A lady in the neighborhood was recruiting people for piece work: folding polyvinyl hand puppets for insertion into Cap'n Crunch cereal. It paid half-a-cent per puppet, so 3,000 puppets would meet the goal. Without a doubt, it was the toughest $15 I ever earned.

Back then, Cracker Jacks was hardly alone when it came to putting prizes into packages of food. All sorts of foreign materials were being inserted with food or, in the case of baseball cards of Latino players, food was being inserted with foreign materials. When the Cap'n went to sea in those days, he was accompanied by an all-children crew. Eventually the kids were jettisoned, possibly under a cloud of pedophilia allegations, but these animated characters were on the hand puppets. My box's puppets featured Brunhilde.

I had three days to fold each puppet and place a rubber band around it, with the bundled puppet's length and width within prescribed dimensional limits. Three thousand is just a number until you apply it to a task, and I immediately fell behind the 1,000-a-day pace needed. By Day 2, mom, younger siblings and grandma had joined the team, hairnets and hand washing not required. By Day 3, Brunhilde delirium gripped the household. As we frantically folded and rubber-banded, my father, a subversive Irishman, casually suggested inserting notes into some of the puppets. Punchy from inhaling PVC particles and nearing exhaustion, I mulled the idea and found it hilarious. I scribbled the words, "Help! I'm being held prisoner in a Cap'n Crunch factory," on a piece of paper, inserted it into a puppet, and imagined, as I folded it, a gap-toothed rug rat in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., opening her prize and asking Daddy what it said.

Can you imagine giving a kid or a homeless person an opportunity for such mischief today? Presumably the puppets would be folded by a high-speed machine in a food-grade facility at a cost below half a penny. Either that or sent to a country where leprosy is still an issue, to be folded by malnourished children working for a bowl of gruel.

Seriously, no food company would tolerate the contamination risk posed by a package insert when the chain of custody was so opaque. Food safety is a top priority, it's often said, though that assumption is a bit naïve. It's certainly true of most food professionals, but not all. Recently I listened to a panel of company execs discuss the issues of the day at a food industry forum. The session was billed as, "Our Annual CEO Crystal Ball Panel." One participant, a gentleman from an ethnic foods company, sounded more like a Tea Party candidate than a serious businessman, grousing about regulations and demanding that government get out of his way. I became slack-jawed, though, when he turned his sights on food safety requirements. The focus on food safety, he said, "has made me want to get out of food manufacturing and just be a sales & marketing organization."

Hey, buddy, go with your instincts, and don't let the door hit you. We don't have a gold watch for you, but help yourself to a Brunhilde puppet on your way out.