LIVINGSTON — The Foster Farms chicken plant remained closed as of Thursday evening as the company dealt with a cockroach infestation.
Foster Farms has been working on measures to assure the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service that it can get the problem at its Livingston plant under control. That work continued through Thursday, company spokesman Ira Brill said.
About 3,500 people work at the plant, one of the largest employers in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. It normally is an around-the-clock operation, with production shifts separated by a multi-hour break for cleaning.
The FSIS suspended operations Wednesday after advising Foster Farms that the pests were found on five occasions since September. The company said only five cockroaches were found in the vast complex, but a letter from the agency suggested the number was higher. The company's two plants in Fresno were not affected by the suspension order.
Foster Farms said no products were affected by the infestation. The FSIS said cockroaches have the potential of spreading microbes that can make chicken consumers sick. However, such microbes are destroyed by cooking chicken to at least 165 degrees, as recommended by Foster Farms and many health officials.
The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, did not respond to numerous phone and email inquiries since Wednesday about how the infestation was being addressed.
An agency letter Wednesday to CEO Ron Foster said the plant would stay closed "until such time as you provide adequate written assurances of corrective and preventive measures to assure that meat and poultry products will be produced under sanitary conditions ... ."
The closure came three months after the FSIS threatened to shut the Livingston plant and the two sites in Fresno because of a salmonella outbreak believed to have sickened more than 500 people. The plants stayed in operation after Foster Farms agreed to improve its safeguards.
No recall was issued over the salmonella issue. Health officials said the bacteria occurs naturally in live chickens and consumers can avoid harm by cooking the meat thoroughly and washing anything that comes in contact with the raw meat.
This week's closure thrust Foster Farms back into the national debate over food safety.
"The question I have is why does USDA/FSIS have the authority to shutter a plant for cockroaches but not for poisoning 550 with salmonella?" said a blog post from Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer and critic of industry practices.
The FSIS reported no evidence of food-borne disease because of the infestation, but a senior staff attorney with the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest told the San Francisco Chronicle that the presence of insects was a sign of trouble. "An infestation of insects of any kind, but particularly cockroaches, is never good," Sarah Klein told the newspaper. "They can carry disease and it is indicative of a company's loss of control of a facility."
Ron 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, he said.
Forbes magazine estimated the 2012 sales at $2.4 billion, putting Foster Farms 195th on its list of privately held U.S. companies.
Foster Farms is by far the largest employer in the Livingston area. About 8,500 other people work in the company's chicken and turkey operations 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.
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.