No one can see salmonella bacteria. It can make you very sick, but 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 to their stomach. Five cockroaches were found in the Foster Farms poultry processing plant in Livingston, 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 the salmonella outbreak earlier this year. 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 might not be so quick to buy chicken processed in a factory once described as “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 the company’s 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 giant leap to connect those five bugs to the salmonella outbreak that sickened 350 people nationwide. Cockroaches carry the salmonella bacteria and many other harmful things.
In dealing with the salmonella outbreak, the company made what we believed were heartfelt promises to improve food safety practices. With this failure coming so quickly after the earlier trouble, we have to wonder how much those statements were about commitment to public safety and how much of it was 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 plant 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. 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 must make food safety their first priority. They must be convinced – as they once were – that theirs is the cleanest, most sanitary plant in the world. Once they believe that, Foster Farms can start to clean up its image.