Foster Farms reopens Livingston plant

Foster Farms reopened its chicken plant Wednesday, after a 10-day voluntary closure to work on sanitation measures.

All 3,500 employees have been called back to the plant, which had closed after a cockroach problem detected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“People are very anxious to get back to work,” said Gurpal Samra, the city’s mayor pro tem. “We have a lot of hardworking people who live paycheck to paycheck.”

Foster Farms did not provide details on what it did during the closure to improve the plant, which can handle about half a million chickens a day. It is the largest piece in a poultry industry that is a key part of the Northern San Joaquin Valley economy.

“Although this has been a challenging time, we remain committed to the highest level of quality and food safety through all aspects of our plant operations and will emerge a stronger company,” President Ron Foster said in a news release.

Foster Farms said it shifted production to its two Fresno plants during the closure, and no consumer products were affected.

About a third of the Livingston plant’s employees continued to work in maintenance. The company plans to add weekend shifts and overtime hours in the coming weeks.

The voluntary closure happened a day after the plant had reopened following a three-day federal shutdown related to cockroaches. Foster Farms said five of them had been found since September. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service suggested a higher number but did not specify it.

The closures came three months after the FSIS threatened to suspend production in Livingston and Fresno because of salmonella issues. Federal officials said an outbreak last year sickened at least 430 people around the nation but that it appears to be over; no deaths were reported.

Industry and public health officials noted that salmonella occurs naturally in live chickens and that people can protect themselves by cooking the meat to at least 165 degrees and fully washing items that come in contact with raw meat.

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation in Modesto, said the extended closure, originally planned for a few days, came about because of an abundance of caution while workers cleaned the plant thoroughly. “They wanted to be perfectly sure they had zero tolerance,” he said. “So they did it twice instead of one go-round.”

Mattos said that although sales took a hit after the salmonella outbreak and the recent closures, he doesn’t think there will be any long-term negative effects.

“I think the brand is strong enough and it should sustain its popularity,” he said. “Customers are still buying the product and the confidence is still there.”

Ron Foster did tell The Modesto Bee in October, however, that the salmonella outbreak caused sales to drop about 25 percent. Sales normally are about $2.3 billion a year.

Foster Farms was founded in Modesto in 1939 by Max and Verda Foster and has expanded its production to several Western and Southern states. It is the top-selling poultry brand in the West.

A food expert at the University of California at Davis had told The Modesto Bee that the voluntary closure was the right step. “I think they need to focus all their attention on this problem,” said Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research.

She added that current technology has made it easier to trace the source of pathogens. “That’s going to put increased pressure on food companies, including companies with a sterling reputation like Foster Farms,” she said.