A tale of a further processing plant and foodborne illness

The once highly profitable Franconia, Pennsylvania, Pilgrim's Pride further processing plant was shutdown by a listeria outbreak.

Okeefe T Headshot

We have all seen the statistics on the number of foodborne illnesses in our respective countries and the staggering dollar figures attributed to the estimated lost wages, productivity and increased health care costs. There is another cost associated with foodborne illness outbreaks that the general public might not recognize but just about everyone involved in food processing is keenly aware of: Often times a link to a major foodborne illness outbreak is enough to shutter a plant or bring down an entire company.

I saw a news item about a car dealership potentially purchasing the 25-acre site that houses the old Horace W. Longacre further processing plant in Franconia, Pennsylvania, with the intention of bulldozing the facility. For those who don’t remember, Horace W. Longacre Inc. was a trailblazing company in further processing poultry meat that moved to its new Franconia plant in 1950. Horace W. Longacre merged with Wampler Foods in 1984, and the combined companies went public and purchased Rockingham Poultry Marketing Cooperative to form WLR Foods in 1988. I worked for WLR Foods in the late 1990's and will always remember the Longacre plant as one of the financial shining stars of the company.

Listeria in a drain

By the late 1990’s, the Franconia plant had a well-diversified mix of further processed turkey and chicken products, including a line of meat salads, tuna, ham, turkey and chicken that were unique and highly profitable. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that the facility was the crown jewel of the company and the facility was given a major remodel and upgrade in 1999. Pilgrim’s Pride purchased WLR Foods in 2000.

There was a major foodborne illness outbreak in the U.S. in 2002 that was attributed to Listeria monocytogenes. A sample take from a floor drain at the Franconia plant was found to be identical to the outbreak strain. On October 12, 2002, Pilgrim's Pride recalled 27.4 million pounds of fresh and frozen ready-to-eat turkey and chicken products produced at the Franconia plant since May 1, 2002. In total, 54 illnesses, eight deaths, and three fetal deaths in nine states were linked to this outbreak.

The Franconia plant was not the only possible source for the listeria illnesses and deaths. Jack Lambersky Poultry Co. in Camden, New Jersey, recalled 4 million pounds of poultry products. According to published reports, some of the Lambersky meat contained a type of listeria indistinguishable from the one in the outbreak. None of the Franconia products tested positive for the outbreak strain. Pilgrim's Pride officials have denied any link to the outbreak, according to published reports.

Sales never recovered

After the product recall, the Franconia plant was closed for a month for cleanup and new interventions to be put in place, but sales of the plant’s products never recovered. A company estimate in 2006 was that the recall cost $100 million, but that was with several lawsuits still pending. By 2006, the only production left at the Franconia facility was the salad line, and this was moved to another facility by the end of the decade. Over the past five years a few potential buyers for the property have discussed zoning changes with the local government entities, but the facility is vacant. Many of the plans floated for the property would have presumably led to the plant being demolished.

Moving forward

This tale is a cautionary one and only has a happy ending if the industry heeds the warnings. The finding of the same strain of Listeria in two locations, product from one company and in the floor drain of another, should serve as a reminder that billions of microbes can have identical DNA. It isn’t the same as finding a human DNA sample at a crime scene, unless of course the perpetrator has a few billion identical twins.

Processors really do need to embrace continuous improvement in the area of food safety. Outbreak trace-back investigators keep getting better tools, and the costs of foodborne illness outbreaks in terms of human suffering and lost business are too great for anyone to ignore.

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