Seventy-five years ago, Max and Verda Foster borrowed $1,000 against a life insurance policy and launched a poultry ranch near Modesto.
The gamble paid off handsomely. Foster Farms has grown to be the sixth-largest chicken producer in the nation and the top poultry brand from the West Coast to the Rockies, with annual sales reported at $2.3 billion.
The company took a hit in October with news that its Livingston and Fresno chicken plants were tied to a salmonella outbreak believed to have sickened more than 500 people. It pledged to redouble its food-safety efforts and averted a temporary shutdown at the plants.
Then, at 3:50 a.m. Wednesday, a federal inspector spotted a cockroach at a hand-washing sink on the Livingston plant’s killing floor, according to a letter later dated Jan. 8 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It cited four other detections dating back to September, and shut down the plant until the problem was fixed. The Livingston plant reopened Saturday.
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Thus did Foster Farms, long skilled at building brand loyalty and trust, find itself the subject of undesirable publicity. Newspapers and bloggers around the nation reported on the closure. Food-safety activists demanded stronger regulations. Industry leaders urged restraint, arguing that the overall U.S. food supply is very safe despite the reports of outbreaks. The Foster Farms case comes during a time of heightening food safety concerns, and on the heels in recent years of recalls of mangoes, cantaloupe, ricotta cheese, dog food and peanut butter after people were sickened by the tainted foods.
Food-safety experts say cockroaches themselves are not a problem – it’s the microbes they spread that can make people sick – but it’s hard to live down the perception.
“I don’t want roaches in the plants that process the food I eat, any more than I want roaches in my kitchen or flies around my barbecue,” said Donald Schaffner, a professor of food science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, in a telephone interview Friday with The Modesto Bee.
Schaffner said he did not have figures on how often cockroaches are found in food-processing plants, but he did say they are proven to be carriers of salmonella.
The problem happened at the world’s largest chicken plant, which employs about 3,500 people and handles about half a million birds a day. It’s an around-the-clock operation, with production shifts separated by multihour breaks for hosing down and sanitizing the many work surfaces and moving parts.
Foster Farms officials could not be reached for comment for this story. They said Wednesday that five cockroaches were found; the USDA suggested a higher number but did not disclose it. The company also said it did extra sanitizing right after the closure and continues its long-term effort to keep salmonella in check.
“A series of new, multi-step processes for salmonella control have been developed by the company with the input of national food safety experts,” a statement issued Wednesday said.
The steps since last year have included targeted vaccinations of breeder chickens and more intensive cleaning of the plant. Foster Farms noted that it had an excellent record for salmonella testing on whole, raw chickens but found a need for improvement at the stage where the birds are cut up.
The outbreak prompted a December report on food safety by the Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. It urged several changes to federal rules, including unannounced testing for salmonella, a greater focus on cut-up birds, and more prompt warnings to consumers about health risks.
“Any one of these outbreaks that results in a lot of media attention reminds consumers that while our food is safe, it could be safer,” said co-author Sandra Eskin, director of food safety at Pew, in a phone interview Thursday.
She also said Foster Farms should provide more information to the public on how it is dealing with the issue.
“The government shut them down, so they need to fix the situation,” she said.
Industry officials note that salmonella occurs naturally in live chickens without harming them, and consumers can protect themselves by cooking the meat to at least 165 degrees.
And a tiny bit of insect parts can get into food without harming people, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It has set standards for hundreds of items, and notes on its website that “it is economically impractical to grow, harvest or process raw products that are totally free of nonhazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.”
Foster Farms is by far the biggest player in a Northern San Joaquin Valley poultry industry that in turn is a major driver of the region’s economy.
Chickens were No. 3 in gross income for farm products in Stanislaus County in 2012, trailing only milk and almonds. The birds brought about $205.1 million to farmers, according to the county agricultural commissioner. This does not count chicks raised for the ranches, which sold for an estimated $40.6 million.
Merced County reported $290.2 million in total chicken income in 2012, ranking fourth behind milk, almonds and cattle. San Joaquin County had just $3.6 million.
The figures do not count the thousands of jobs created as the chickens are processed into a bevy of grocery items, from plain breasts and thighs to frozen nuggets shaped like dinosaurs. Nor do they account for the goods and services that Foster Farms and its contract ranchers purchase in the region.
The late Max Foster, who worked as a Modesto Bee editor while launching the poultry business in 1939, would come to see the value of promoting chicken and turkey as wholesome foods. That at a time when consumer tastes were shifting from beef to poultry.
In recent decades, Foster Farms and other California producers have tried to distinguish their products from other brands. They campaigned to get the “fresh” label off competing birds that were frozen. More recently, they have fought against allowing “natural” on poultry injected with salt and other additives.
The Livingston plant is a critical part of the industry because of its size and its central location among chicken ranches in the San Joaquin Valley, said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation in Modesto. The trucking distance for live birds is much less than in some other regions, he said.
“The logistics are such that when a bird is put into a barn to be raised, they know what day that bird will be sent to the plant,” Mattos said.
He said the cockroach issue was “an aberration” for a company with an overall solid record.
“They have a really good reputation and a really good brand,” he said. “They’re still selling a lot of chickens.”