Results of tests for the potentially fatal listeria bacteria at a South Camden poultry processing plant are expected by the end of the week.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which conducted the tests about two weeks ago, said the results will determine whether J.L. Foods Inc. resumes operations.
The small poultry company voluntarily shut down its plant Monday. It also agreed to recall 200,000 pounds of its oven-roasted turkey and chicken products made during a weeklong span over the summer.
The company agreed to the closure and recall after learning that federal inspectors investigating the Northeast’s outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes found the bacterium in a package of precooked turkey breast produced by the company. They picked up the turkey Oct. 3 in the Pittsburgh area, company officials said.
The turkey breast contained a strain of listeria likely to be the same strain that caused at least seven people to die and 50 others to become ill since summer, USDA officials said Monday.
The department launched testing at the South Camden plant in mid-October based on “the significant number of times people who had gotten ill” from listeria reported eating products traced to the facility, USDA spokesman Steven Cohen said. It was unclear whether anyone who ate products traced to the company died.
During the inspection, investigators with the Food Safety and Inspection Service gathered samples from food surfaces, equipment, drains and other areas within the Camden plant. The plant was following accepted sanitation practices, inspectors observed, but the company agreed to test products that leave the facility for listeria, a step that typically isn’t required, Cohen said. Random tests throughout the year all came up negative for listeria, he added.
If the recent tests confirm the presence of listeria in the plant, J.L. Foods, also known as Jack Lambersky Poultry Co., would need to prove it has removed future threats before it can resume operations, Cohen said.
The Camden plant is one of two in the Delaware Valley to be shut down as a result of the listeria outbreak.
A Wampler Foods plant in Montgomery County, Pa., remains closed after inspectors found listeria in a drain in August. Wampler last month recalled 27 million pounds of poultry, the nation’s largest meat recall ever.
The J.L. Foods incident has prompted the Centers for Disease Control to refine its search as to what may have caused the Northeast listeriosis outbreak, which it blamed last month on the Wampler plant.
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said authorities are investigating whether “a common source product,” such as the same batch of raw turkey meat or tainted packaging materials, was used at the Wampler and J.L. Foods plants.
He said it was “extremely unlikely,” but technically possible, that the bacteria from the two plants came from separate sources; they had the same basic genetic makeup.
Wampler spokesman Ray Atkinson said this raises doubts about whether the company’s Pennsylvania facility was responsible for any deaths.
“We believe that this finding suggests that the outbreak may have another source, and this is consistent with what we have been saying all along,” Atkinson said.
J.L. Foods has been shaken by the investigation, and has been cooperating with investigators.
“First and foremost, the health and safety of our customers and employees is our highest priority,” said Kenneth Martin, the plant’s general manager.
Martin doesn’t discount the possibility listeria is present in the plant but said he is baffled because the company uses rigorous sanitation practices.
Workers must step through disinfecting foams before entering processing areas. Work areas are sanitized “from top to bottom” at each shift, and an atomizer spreads a disinfecting mist throughout the plant, he said.
“We’ve done everything we know that’s right,” he said.
The company makes oven-roasted turkey and chicken breast sold to small delis and institutions under its brand, La Petit Poulet. It also sells its product to other brands, including Hatfield Meats.
The company agreed to recall products made between June 27 and July 3. That time frame was chosen because the tainted turkey breast inspectors obtained was processed July 1.
The company’s products have a shelf life of 45 days unless frozen, the company said. “We assume most of it has been consumed at this point,” company spokesman Lynn Kettleson said.
The company processes fresh turkey and chicken breasts from farms in Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Arkansas. The meat is delivered under refrigeration and likely carries pathogens at this point, Martin said.
The company, however, cooks all its meat to internal temperatures of 164 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to kill any pathogens, Martin said.
The meat, however, is allowed to cool before being placed in plastic vacuum wrapping. The product could be exposed to listeria at this point, Martin said.
Martin said the company will keep its 115 employees on the payroll as long as possible.
“There’s no question, we’ll get back on our feet,” he said. “We’ll pick up the pieces and go on with it.”