USDA finds cockroaches at Foster Farms plant in Livingston, suspends processing

January 8, 2014 


A Foster Farms delivery truck leaves the Foster Farms plant on Livingston/Cressey Road in 2005.


— Federal inspectors suspended processing at the Foster Farms chicken plant Wednesday because of a cockroach infestation that raised concerns about human health.

The company said only five cockroaches were found in the massive Livingston 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 company's two plants in Fresno were not affected by the federal suspension.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service ordered the temporary closure, just three months after threatening closure 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 between Sept. 14 and 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 morning 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 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.

Foster told the Modesto Bee in October that the salmonella outbreak caused sales to drop about 25%; 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.

Modesto Bee Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra contributed to this report.

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