Ken Peck, owner of Dakota Creek winery in Washington state, had a surprise visitor in August: an inspector from the state Department of Agriculture wearing a lab coat and hairnet. She wanted to know if he and his winery workers also wear hairnets. Peck replied that he’d never heard of anyone in the wine industry who does. The inspector said that she usually surveys dairy plants and this was her first winery inspection.
The visit was one of 23 inspections of Washington state wineries the U.S. Food and Drug Administration contracted the state agency to perform in the 2011–12 fiscal year. In a little-known program, the FDA performed 261 winery inspections nationwide, either directly or through state agencies, compared with 132 in 2009–10. While winery inspections are not new, they’re being ramped up under the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, according to FDA spokeswoman Patricia El-Hinnawy.
The federal law mandates that the FDA inspect all food processing establishments. The frequency of inspections is based on safety risk and compliance history. While wineries are considered low risk because the fermentation process kills pathogens, all food facilities must be inspected within seven years and at least once every five years after that. “The FDA may be conducting more inspections [at wineries] than it has done in the recent past, in order to meet the [law’s] requirements,” El-Hinnawy said.
Wendell Lee, general counsel of California's Wine Institute, said his organization had tracked the Food Safety Modernization Act in Congress and knew about it and the potential for inspections. But they have not heard anything from members or from the state about an increased regimen of inspections.
Leaders of two associations of small Washington wineries expressed alarm, saying they had never encountered such inspections or requirements before and received no prior notification. “This could be quite onerous and expensive for small wineries,” said Bill Kimmerly, president of the Whatcom County Winery Association.
But Kirk Robinson, assistant director of food safety for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said his agency tried to notify wineries about the inspections last year and that wineries have always had to meet state food safety requirements.
He acknowledged, however, that wineries may be surprised because most haven’t seen inspectors over the past 20 years. He said his agency curtailed its inspection program because wineries are low risk, noting he’s never heard of any food-borne illnesses related to wine. But he stressed that his agency wants to work cooperatively with winemakers to ensure good sanitation practices without putting a significant burden on them.
Peck described the recent FDA visit as a three-hour inspection of his small winery, invoking standards that sometimes raised his eyebrows. Learning that Peck, like many winemakers, performs crush outdoors, the inspector told him that would have to stop because birds could fly over and poop in the crusher, Peck said. He responded by pointing to his vineyard where birds were sitting on the vines, defecating freely. She spotted his cat and warned that pets are prohibited in the winery. He asked if she’d ever seen the popular book Winery Dogs of Washington.
Ultimately, the inspector required Peck to install a hot-water heater and a hot-water faucet in his cellar. The modifications cost him about $500, but he took it with wry amusement. “It was kind of intriguing,” said Peck, who has given himself the new title of winery food inspection officer. “But let’s make sure the inspectors have some industry knowledge about standard practices.”