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Lawmaker wants inquiry into chow hall contract

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., cites Sodexo food safety problems

Apr. 24, 2010 - 10:01AM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 24, 2010 - 10:01AM  |  
Marines at the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., mess hall enjoy lunch. A California congresswoman wants an inquiry into the Corps' food services contract with Sodexo, due to expire Sept. 30.
Marines at the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., mess hall enjoy lunch. A California congresswoman wants an inquiry into the Corps' food services contract with Sodexo, due to expire Sept. 30. (Lance Cpl. Adam Testagrossa / /Marine Corps)
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A member of the House Armed Services Committee has called for an investigation into the Marine Corps' primary food services provider, Sodexo, raising both cost and health concerns.

In an April 5 letter sent to the Government Accountability Office, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., said the timing is "critical" to review the eight-year, $881 million contract between Sodexo and the Corps. The contract, to provide food services for chow halls at the Corps' 17 bases within the continental U.S., is set to expire Sept. 30 and the service has issued new solicitations, Sanchez said in her letter, which is addressed to the GAO's acting comptroller general, Gene L. Dodaro.

In 2001, the Corps decided to consolidate food service contracts at the national level, anticipating it would save $20 million per year and free up staff, Sanchez wrote. She added that Sodexo received the contract largely because of a cost-saving "cook-chill" facility in Tennessee, where food would be prepared and refrigerated, and then shipped around the country.

But in July 2007, the company stopped using the facility to feed the Corps. This followed a U.S. Department of Agriculture recall of 3,000 pounds of chicken products contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria that can cause food sickness and spread to the nervous system. Some of that tainted supply went to Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Sanchez wrote.

"In fact there had been a pattern of food safety problems at the facility, both before and after the USDA recall, including 79 USDA records of food safety noncompliance between December 2005 and September 2009," Sanchez states in her letter, which cites USDA inspection documents.

In a statement, Sodexo said it stands by "our record in food safety and current business practices and [is] unaware of any current noncompliance issues in food safety. Sodexo has enjoyed a positive and productive working relationship with the United States Marine Corps for more than eight years. We take this matter very seriously and would participate fully, answering any questions we are asked, if the need should arise."

Among the Sanchez's questions are: Why did Sodexo, midway through the contract, stop using the Tennessee facility, and what was the effect on cost, operations and readiness?

"The fact that Sodexo had to switch gears and abandon its risky technological approach in the middle of the contract raises serious questions that need to be reviewed in detail before the Marines award [their] next food service contract," she said.

Sanchez also wants to compare Sodexo's actual pricing and staffing with initial estimates, which were challenged by competitors in the bid process.

Sanchez wrote that, given the Defense Department's increasing reliance on contractors for services, more scrutiny is needed.

This "is a critical juncture to review Sodexo's past performance so that any lessons learned from the Marine Corps' experience with Sodexo may be applied to this and future large service acquisitions across all branches of the Armed Services," she said.

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