Government Still Turning Blind
Eye To Deadly Meat Plants

New York Times
December 11, 2002
Plant's Sanitation May Have Link to Deadly Bacteria

A federal meat inspector said a Pennsylvania poultry plant, one of two
operations under investigation as a likely source of a listeria outbreak
that has killed eight people since July, had persistent sanitation
problems that could have fostered the deadly bacteria.

But the inspector, Vincent Erthal, said inspection officials had failed
to crack down on some of the problems in part because of what he and
other critics see as confusion and indecision in a new federal system
for regulating the nation's food companies.

Mr. Erthal said in interviews that the chief government inspector at the
Wampler Foods plant in Franconia, Pa., disagreed about the extent of the
dangers and opposed his efforts to force a cleanup in fall 2001, about
eight months before the outbreak, which also sickened 54 people in New
York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and five other states.

Mr. Erthal also said that as health authorities issued the first alerts
about the outbreak in late August, he and a supervisor recommended that
top regional inspection officials consider forcing the Wampler plant to
close for repairs. But, he said, little was done until six weeks later.

Several Agriculture Department officials said sanitation problems,
including mold and algae on the walls and condensation dripping from
ductwork over the processing tables, were chronic enough to justify
closing the plant. The department ordered the plant closed temporarily
on Oct. 13 after the strain of Listeria monocytogenes that caused the
deaths was found in the plant's drains. Wampler, a part of Pilgrim's
Pride, the nation's second-largest poultry company, also recalled 27
million pounds of meat, one of the largest amounts in American history,
and later reopened on Nov. 13.

The Agriculture Department's inspector general and Democrats in Congress
are investigating why nothing more was done before listeria was found in
the drains.

Executives at Pilgrim's Pride insisted that the plant was safe and that
they had fixed any problems quickly.

Government and Wampler officials said none of the meat returned under
the recall had tested positive for the same rare strain of listeria that
caused the outbreak. They also said there was no proof that anyone had
been sickened by Wampler's turkey deli meats and other ready-to-eat

Identical bacteria have been found in turkey processed by an unrelated
company, J. L. Foods Co. Inc., in Camden, N.J., and health officials say
it remains unclear how most of the victims became ill.

Still, food-safety experts say Mr. Erthal's complaints raise new
questions about the Agriculture Department's inspection and
bacteria-testing program, which has come under scrutiny as a result of
huge recalls of contaminated beef and poultry at some of the nation's
largest processing companies since mid-July.

To safety advocates, government auditors and some meat inspectors, the
biggest failures have come in how the department's Food Safety and
Inspection Service has implemented changes that grew out of a 1993
outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 at the Jack-in-the-Box hamburger chain.

Billed as revolutionary, the new approach was meant to be more
scientific than the "poke and sniff" methods that inspectors had used
since the turn-of-the-century days of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."
Because the worst hazards come from microscopic toxins, the idea was to
place more responsibility on the companies for proper refrigeration and
handling and to require them to create plans to kill any germs.

The program was phased in over several years, and supporters credit it
with helping to reduce the frequency of serious food-borne illnesses
from E. coli, salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes, which caused the
recent outbreak.

But surveys by the Agriculture Department's inspector general and the
General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, show that
many plants have been allowed to get by with inadequate safety plans.

Mr. Erthal, 40, who has been a meat inspector for 18 years, said the new
rules have "a lot of gray areas." He said inspectors were still taught
to step in quickly at any sign of direct contamination. But when it
comes to broader sanitation problems, he and others said, many
inspectors are waiting longer to intervene out of a sense that it is now
the company's role to deal with those issues unless there are repeated

Rodney Leonard, a former administrator of the inspection service, said
the result is "a clear `don't ask, don't tell' mandate" that is causing
inspectors to miss "red flags all over the place."

Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and the ranking
minority member on the House Committee on Government Reform, said, "I
think what we're seeing is a picture of a department that has abdicated
its responsibility to protect the public in the area of food safety."

Dr. Elsa Murano, the Agriculture Department's under secretary for food
safety, disputed the criticism, saying she expected her inspectors to be
as aggressive as ever.

Department officials - and Wampler executives - said that if Mr. Erthal,
who was the night-shift inspector at Wampler from May 2000 until last
September when he received a requested transfer to a daytime assignment
at another plant, was so worried about the conditions, he should have
taken harsher actions against the plant himself or pushed harder to blow
the whistle before the outbreak occurred.

Dr. Murano said the recall at Wampler was a prime motivation for a new
listeria testing directive that went into effect on Monday. Under the
plan, if companies that make ready-to-eat products like hot dogs and
deli meats do not voluntarily provide the government with test results
for even the most general, and least harmful, types of listeria in their
plants, then the department will expand its own testing.

The agency is also working on a new rule to require companies to test
their processing areas for listeria, Dr. Murano said, so "you can find
it before it gets into the product."

Felicia Nestor, an official at the Government Accountability Project, an
advocacy group that has been helping Mr. Erthal and other
whistle-blowers, said, "The regulations focused on direct product
contamination, and it's only now that U.S.D.A. is adding a focus on
environmental testing, which is an acknowledgment that they have left
consumers without adequate protection up till now."

Dr. Murano said that if the agency had known before the outbreak that
Wampler's own tests had detected the more general types of listeria in
the plant, "we would have acted."

Ron Morris, the senior vice president for turkey operations at Pilgrim's
Pride, said the company had shared its listeria testing results, both
positive and negative, with the government by placing them in a file
drawer with other records available to the inspectors.

But department officials said the inspector in charge, Debra Martin, who
declined to comment, has denied knowing anything about the company's
test results, and Mr. Erthal said he never saw the logs in the drawer.

Still, Mr. Erthal said that over time company employees told him
informally that the tests were finding general types of listeria in the
plant. Experts say the most common listeria can be harmless, but their
presence can also signal that conditions are ripe for Listeria
monocytogenes, the deadly type.

Mr. Erthal said that when Ms. Martin walked around with him in his first
days at the plant, he pointed to the algae on the walls, flaking paint
and condensation on air-conditioning ducts. But, he said, Ms. Martin
told him that under the new regulatory system, such hazards were not a
high priority unless they threatened to directly contaminate meat.

Then, in the fall of 2001, Mr. Erthal said, Ms. Martin disagreed with
his suggestion that the violations warranted broader enforcement action.
She told him the plant was making improvements, Mr. Erthal said, and he
ultimately backed off.

Mr. Erthal agreed that the plant had made progress, replacing old walls
in one area and increasing the use of floor sanitizers. But he also was
concerned about how often floor drains got clogged and backed up into
puddles in the processing rooms.

Then, on Aug. 28, he said, he went through a number of the deficiency
notices with his circuit supervisor, Muhammad A. Choudry. Officials said
Mr. Choudry sent an e-mail message to managers in the Philadelphia
district office suggesting that the Wampler plant was a good candidate
for an enforcement notice, which gives a company three days to create a
plan to fix safety problems or face being temporarily shut down.

Jan T. Behney, the district manager in Philadelphia, and John Sworen,
then the district's top enforcement officer, said that their aides
reviewed the material within several working days and agreed that the
violations were documented well enough to support a notice.

But Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the inspection service in Washington,
said health officials initially focused on a different company's plant
as the most likely source of the outbreak, and the district inspection
office did not turn its attention to Wampler until Sept. 27.

Mr. Cohen said the department took two samples from the Wampler plant's
drains on Oct. 3 or 4 that matched the strain of listeria in the
outbreak. He added that 25 of the 57 samples tested positive for other
strains of Listeria monocytogenes.

Mr. Morris, the Pilgrim's Pride senior vice president, said the company
"diligently worked" to fix the problems with mold and condensation over
the past year. Mr. Morris said Wampler recently strengthened safety

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