Foster Farms on Sunday “voluntarily and temporarily” put operations at its Livingston fresh chicken production facility on hold, according to a statement from the company.
According to the statement, the company is putting operations on hold "to further expand its USDA-approved safe manufacturing procedures and monitoring systems."
Livingston maintenance employees will remain on the job, according to the statement, while the remainder of plant employees will be called back when the plant resumes full operations.
"The company is exercising vigilance and choosing to dedicate additional time to ensuring its preventative plan is fully realized with the most effective technology and treatments available. Foster Farms expects this closure to be brief, lasting several days, but does not at this time have a definitive date for resuming operations," the statement said.
No other plants are affected. Company officials said that no product, packaging or line was in any way affected. Production will be shifted temporarily to the company's other Central Valley plants.
The message from Foster Farms concluded with a statement from the company’s president, Ron Foster. "On behalf of my family, I made a commitment to making this right and we are taking every opportunity to ensure the long-term efficacy of our program at this plant,” Foster said. “ We are confident in the preventative plan and want to take the time to properly implement new measures to our satisfaction. Foster Farms is a company that strives for excellence. We will not resume operations until we are confident that we have the most stringent and effective treatment protocols in place."
The Livingston plant was shut down last week after a federal inspector on Wednesday spotted a cockroach at a hand-washing sink on the 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, only to voluntarily halt operations Sunday.
The company also 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.
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 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.”
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.