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Inspector: Poultry Plant Warnings Ignored

Dec 12, 2002 | AP A federal inspector says listeria blamed for eight deaths since July would have been found sooner at a Pennsylvania plant if the government had taken forceful action.

Vincent Erthal, in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, said he wrote two years of reports on repeated sanitation violations that may have fostered bacterial growth at Wampler Foods in Franconia, Pa.

Erthal said workers prepared raw poultry in the same area where ready-to-eat food was processed, and workers were careless when cleaning the floors, spraying poultry meat. In addition, he said inspectors would tell the plant when they were going to do random testing.

Erthal said his reports were ignored by his superior or filed in such a way that they didn't seem to require enforcement action.

He said Agriculture Department inspectors failed to take corrective action partly because they were unsure whether they could intervene when harmful bacteria was found in the plant's environment such as on walls and equipment and not in the food.

"A lot of inspectors in the field they're not sure how to react to non-direct product contamination," said Erthal, an inspector for 18 years.

Pilgrim's Pride, the owner of Wampler Foods, recalled 27.4 million pounds of sliced deli poultry in October when government officials found listeria, which can cause illness and death, in a floor drain. It was the same strain found in an outbreak that killed eight people and sickened 45 others since July. However, government and company officials said none of the 4.3 million pounds of poultry returned so far tested positive for the strain.

Investigators found a matching strain at another plant, J.L. Foods Co., in Camden, N.J.

Officials at Pilgrim's Pride say they have enhanced sanitation since the Franconia plant reopened last month. The company now has new cleaning methods, gives employees additional training in food safety and personal hygiene and uses outside experts to conduct microbial testing.

"Wampler has always taken swift, decisive action in full cooperation with the USDA to correct or improve our procedures whenever a food safety issue is identified," said Pilgrim's Pride CEO David Van Hoose in a statement.

Van Hoose also said the company routinely provided its environmental test results — both positive and negative to USDA for review.

Erthal said he told Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower group, about his concerns.

Waxman, critical of the inspection system, said, "I think it shows that our food safety system is not working and the public is not being protected from harm."

Waxman wrote to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on Wednesday seeking documents and an explanation about testing at the plant since January 2001.

Erthal is making serious allegations, but "has not produced any proof, any evidence," said Elsa Murano, undersecretary for food safety.

She said she asked the inspector general's office to investigate his claims.

"All of our employees have available to them the Office of Inspector General (for whistle-blowing), and Mr. Erthal didn't do that," Murano said. "I need to know, frankly, if what he's saying is right, is true, is accurate, then we need to correct that and make sure it doesn't happen again."

The department is toughening food safety rules, Murano said, citing a directive that took effect Monday. It says inspectors will test plant environments for listeria unless plants do it themselves and share the results with the government.

Wampler Foods already does such testing, but Murano said her inspectors told her it didn't share its test results.

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