Livingston Foster Farms plant operations remain suspended

jholland@modbee.com rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com January 8, 2014 

DN Foster Farms

DEBBIE NODA — dnoda@modbee.com Buy Photo

— Operations at the Foster Farms plant in Livingston have been suspended for another day, city officials said today.

Federal inspectors closed down the Foster Farms chicken plant Wednesday because of a cockroach infestation that raised concerns about human health. The Livingston plant is one of the largest employers in the area with about 3,500 workers.

City officials said they heard the plant remained closed from Foster Farms employees and based on the city’s water usage levels this morning. Attempts to contact Foster Farms officials today have been unsuccessful.

The company said Wednesday that only five cockroaches were found in the massive plant over the past four months, but it carried out “enhanced sanitizing” Wednesday and expects it to reopen soon. It also said no products have been affected.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service ordered the temporary closure, just three months after threatening the same thing because of salmonella problems at the Livingston plant and two Foster Farms sites in Fresno. The plants stayed in operation after the company, one of the Northern San Joaquin Valley’s largest employers, agreed to improve its safeguards.

The cockroach problem was detailed Wednesday in a five-page letter to Foster Farms CEO Ron Foster from Abdalla Amin, deputy district manager for the FSIS in Alameda. It cited five occasions from Sept. 14 through Wednesday when inspectors found the pests at various locations in the plant, but it did not specify how many were found each time.

“This action is initiated based on egregious insanitary conditions observed in your establishment whereby products produced at your facility may have been rendered adulterated in violation of the Poultry Products Inspection Act,” Amin wrote.

The letter said inspectors found cockroaches early Wednesday at a hand-washing sink. Earlier detections were near a faucet, on a plastic tub that comes in contact with chicken, near a sanitizer dispenser and “on the floor between the liver tumbler/belt and the wall.”

Amin wrote that cockroaches and other pests “can and do harbor food-borne pathogens, which can then multiply and be dispersed throughout the food-processing environment, increasing the chances of product contamination rendering the product unsafe.”

The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, did not warn consumers of any problems with products on the market.

Foster Farms said it was notified of all five detections by the FSIS on Wednesday. “FSIS maintains a zero-tolerance policy and Foster Farms closed the Livingston facility immediately for sanitization and treatment,” the company’s statement said. “No other facilities are affected. No products are affected. Product production has been transferred to the company’s other facilities.”

Foster Farms is by far the largest employer in the Livingston area, with about 3,500 people. An additional 8,500 or so work in chicken and turkey production in Turlock, Fresno and other Foster Farms locations in the West and South.

Max and Verda Foster founded the business in Modesto in 1939, and it has remained in family ownership as it grew to be the largest poultry producer in the West. It has long had a reputation for quality and wholesomeness.

Miguel Torres, supervisor at Liberty Market in Livingston, said he was concerned that the federal order will reduce demand for the chicken. “It will impact our business because we’re going to lose sales,” he said. “A lot of people were returning the chicken (after the earlier problem). It was hard for us to go through all that.”

Tom Lackey of Livingston, who retired after 38 years at Foster Farms, said he believes that the sanitation problems have resulted from the use of machines and chemicals rather than the “soap and green pads” that had been employed. “To me, it was definitely cleaner back in the day when it was a hands-on deal,” he said. “They need to get back to that, but that requires hiring people and that costs money.”

Lackey said he never saw cockroaches inside the plant when he worked there. He also said consumers could avoid salmonella if they cook the chicken properly.

Ron Foster told The Modesto Bee in October that the salmonella outbreak caused sales to drop about 25 percent; they normally are about $2.3 billion a year.

Foster and other company leaders vowed to make Foster Farms a leader in food safety, with measures that include increased plant sanitation, vaccination of breeder hens against salmonella, and education of consumers about proper handling and cooking.

Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra contributed to this report. Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385. Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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