By JOHN WILEN
Bucks County Courier Times
The listeria outbreak that forced Pilgrim’s Pride to recall 27.4 million pounds of poultry products processed at its Franconia plant in Montgomery County two years ago has spawned a criminal investigation, federal authorities confirmed Tuesday.
“The investigation is open and it is ongoing,” said Deirdre MacNeil, a spokeswoman with the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General’s Office, which is conducting the investigation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia.
MacNeil declined further comment on the investigation Tuesday, citing standard department policy.
Stephen Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the investigation does not involve FSIS actions.
“This would be just of the company’s conduct,” Cohen said. The FSIS oversees meat safety and recalls.
A Pilgrim’s Pride official declined comment on the investigation.
Word of the investigation first surfaced in a pair of inspector general’s audit reports completed in June, but only recently provided to the Intelligencer in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The Intelligencer, based in Doylestown, is a sister paper of the Courier Times.
The reports only obliquely reference the criminal investigation. But they excoriate in detail the recall process and its oversight by the USDA’s own FSIS.
The inspector general determined that only 5.5 million pounds of recalled poultry products were actually recovered by Pilgrim’s Pride. “The rest of the recalled product, almost 21.9 million pounds, was consumed in the marketplace or otherwise disposed of,” one report concludes.
It also concludes that the recall was fraught with discrepancies that call its effectiveness into question:
“Although FSIS determined in July 2003 that the recall was successful, we found an overwhelming number of significant discrepancies on the agency’s effectiveness check forms that call this conclusion into question.”
The inspector general audited 582 forms the Food Safety and Inspection Service used to monitor the recall, and found discrepancies on 389 of them – a 66 percent failure rate.
The reports give Pilgrim’s Pride generally good marks for its efforts in the recall, noting that it found no problems with an audit of recall “effectiveness check” forms completed by company personnel.
However, one of the reports, states: “Our audit work for the Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation was limited to FSIS’s oversight of the effectiveness of the recall due to an ongoing criminal investigation.”
MacNeil said the investigation is likely to continue for some time.
Listeria was found in poultry products across the Northeast in October 2002, and was quickly traced to Pilgrim’s Pride’s Franconia plant, then known as Wampler Foods. The plant was shut down, but reopened a month later.
In its audit of the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s oversight of the recall, the Inspector General’s Office determined the service didn’t adequately document the steps it took to conclude the recall was effective.
In many cases, the service didn’t determine how much poultry Pilgrim’s Pride customers purchased, and failed to document whether tainted poultry was located and destroyed, according to the reports.
In some cases, the FSIS checked businesses that didn’t purchase any of the tainted poultry products because inspectors “didn’t have a process for selecting customers.”
The reports also determined FSIS failed to check up on the recall in a timely manner, noting that 72 of 582 compliance checks took place more than 30 days after the recall was announced.
The reports give Pilgrim’s Pride inspectors generally good marks during the recall: “We analyzed 40 of the 784 effectiveness checks conducted by Pilgrim’s Pride personnel, which we found were adequately performed.”
In a statement, Barbara Masters, acting administrator of the FSIS, said the service has taken steps to improve its oversight of the meat processing industry. FSIS published a new rule in June 2003 that, Masters says, “encourages plants to install new technologies that eliminate or suppress the growth of [listeria].”
The new rule is working, Masters said, noting that the number of listeria-related recalls fell from 40 in 2002 to 14 in 2003.
“The response to the listeria outbreak is something we’re very proud of,” said the FSIS’s Cohen.
Consumer advocates have generally been critical of the FSIS and its approach, which they say relies heavily on industry self-regulation. Felicia Nester, an independent consumer advocate who was formerly with the Government Accountability Project, sees the new FSIS rules as just more of the same.
Said Nester: “They’ve been stonewalling the public for years.”
John Wilen can be reached at 215-345-3187 or jwilen@phillyBurbs.com.