Our View: Can Foster Farms overcome cockroach controversy?

January 9, 2014 

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On its website, Foster Farms says it's doing everything it can to improve food safety and issued an apology. MERCED SUN-STAR

ON ITS WEBSITE, FOSTER FARMS SAYS IT'S DOING EVERYTHING IT CAN TO IMPROVE FOOD SAFETY AND ISSUED AN APOLOGY. MERCED SUN-STAR — On its website, Foster Farms says it's doing everything it can to improve food safety and issued an apology. MERCED SUN-STAR

Perhaps because salmonella bacteria aren’t visible to the naked eye but can still make you sick, there isn’t much of an ick factor. Not so with cockroaches.

The mere thought of the little bugs – a well-known sign of uncleanliness – scurrying around food makes everyone sick. Five cockroaches were found in the Foster Farms Livingston processing plant, forcing the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service to close the plant Wednesday, idling some 3,500 workers.

The action sent out economic ripples that could turn into tidal waves – especially considering salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds across the country. Regardless of how long the plant remains closed, no matter how much cleanup is done, the Foster Farms brand has been damaged.

Once considered a paragon of cleanliness, and rightfully proud of its industry-leading federal inspection record, Foster Farms now faces an incredibly difficult task. Consumers who were quick to forgive a salmonella lapse last year may not be so quick to buy chicken processed in a factory once “infested” with bugs.

This is bad news for Modesto where the company began; for Livingston and Fresno where the chicken is processed; and for hundreds of farms throughout the region where Foster Farms’ chickens are raised.

Americans eat 83 pounds of chicken a year. Foster Farms is only the nation’s sixth-largest processor, meaning consumers have many chicken choices.

We’re not suggesting bugs ever touched any chicken. Inspectors saw exactly five cockroaches, none on meat. But it’s not a far leap to connect those five bugs to the salmonella outbreak that began in October. Cockroaches are known to carry the salmonella bacteria that is harmless to chickens.

In dealing with the salmonella outbreak, the company made what we believe to be heartfelt promises to improve food safety practices.

With this issue falling so closely on the heels of the earlier trouble, we have to wonder how much those statements were about commitment and how much were about public relations.

The FSIS detailed five steps Foster Farms must take – from identifying the cause of the infestation to corrective actions to future monitoring. Those demands are appropriate.

In our reporting on the shutdown, we found the comments of Foster Farms retiree Tom Lackey especially interesting. He noted that sanitation practices have changed in recent years as the company relied more on automated processes than old-fashioned elbow grease to scrub the plant.

Allowing machines to do certain jobs cuts costs; but sometimes a human sees things a machine can’t. A dedicated employee can take action immediately or alert supervisors to problems before they become crises.

To have any chance of rebuilding customer confidence, everyone at Foster Farms – top to bottom – must make food safety the first priority. They must be convinced – as they once were – that they are working in the cleanest, most sanitary processing plant in the world.

Once they believe, their confidence will spread to customers ... and help chase away those thoughts of scurrying cockroaches.

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