Other Views: Foster Farms faces an incredibly difficult task

Published: Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014 - 12:00 am

A version of this editorial appeared Friday in The Modesto Bee.

Perhaps because salmonella bacteria can’t be seen with the naked eye, 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 feel woozy. 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 recent salmonella outbreak. FSIS approved Foster Farms’ cleanup plan, and it plans to reopen the plant today. But 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 are known to carry the salmonella bacteria and many other things harmful to humans.

In dealing with the salmonella outbreak, the company made what we believe to be heartfelt promises to improve food safety practices. With this latest failure, we have to wonder how much those statements were about commitment to public safety and how much 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.

Allowing machines to do certain jobs cuts costs. But humans see things a machine can’t. Employees can alert supervisors to problems before they become crises.

To have any chance of rebuilding customer confidence, everyone at Foster Farms – top to bottom – must make food safety the first priority. They must be convinced – as they once were – that they are working in the cleanest, most sanitary processing plant in the world. Once they believe, their confidence will spread to customers and Foster Farms can clean up its image.

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