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Tyson plant closing blamed on fecal material, paint, rust: USDA enforces new regulations for sanitary problems.

Tyson Foods Inc.'s Waldron poultry plant, shut down for sanitary reasons last week for the second time since January by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been plagued for months with serious food contamination problems, according to USDA records obtained by Arkansas Business.

The problems, the USDA says, include repeated findings of visible fecal material on the meat - for which the USDA has adopted a zero-tolerance policy; violations regarding the reprocessing of birds and the required trimming of an aesthetically displeasing skin condition called inflammatory process; a consistent problem with general sanitation; and a failure to create a quality control system that addressed the problems.

And in an equally disturbing revelation, Springdale-based USDA District Manager C.H. Schilmoeller said in an April 9 letter to Tyson that the Waldron plant "produced and shipped 36,680 pounds of poultry products found to be contaminated with paint and rusty metal flakes."

The plant remained closed from April 9 thorough the evening of April 15, when Tyson submitted an acceptable action plan to fix the problems.

According to Dr. Paul Reswebber, assistant district manager of the Springdale USDA office, the products that contained paint and metal were produced in Waldron, where they went undetected. The products were then shipped to another Arkansas Tyson plant, where workers and a federal inspector spotted the paint and rust, he says, which got on the chicken when workers apparently were doing some overhead cleaning in a room where the product was stored. When the problem was detected, he says, some of the chicken was "condemned" and some was salvaged through skinning and deboning. None of the adulterated product made it to consumers, though.

"The kicker here is that the [Waldron] plant should have caught it themselves and take care of it before it left," Reswebber says. "That's what we are fussing at them for."

The revelation that adulterated products were shipped from the plant appears to contradict statements made by Tyson Foods.

"It is ... important to note that food safety is not at issue," the company said in an April 9 news release regarding the most recent shutdown of the Waldron plant, "since at no time has product been shipped from the plant that did not meet or exceed the USDA's standards of wholesomeness and safety." Tyson spokesman Ed Nicholson reiterated the point to Arkansas Business last week, though he would not comment on any of the details of the Waldron plants troubles.

"About as specific as I can be is there are at least portions of the previous action plan that weren't being addressed to their satisfaction, Nicholson says."

The Waldron plant joined dubious company last week as the USDA "suspended" its mark of inspection at the plant for the second time - something that has happened at only a "handful" of food processing plants in the country, according to Jacque Knight, spokeswoman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Knight says roughly 60 plants nationwide have had the mark of inspection withheld by the USDA in the past year- and thus have been forced to close down until food safety issues have been adequately addressed. Only one plant - a Foremost Packing Co. beef plant in East Moline Ill. - has had the mark of inspection "withdrawn," when problems were not fixed within USDA-mandated time limits. (Ultimately, inspection was reinstated at Foremost after a consent decree was agreed to between the company and the USDA.)

January Closing

The whole debacle at Waldron began Jan. 14, when the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service suspended inspection at the plant, forcing Tyson to close the facility until Jan. 18.

The action, says the USDA, was based on the plant's failure to prevent products from being contaminated with fecal material, and also the plant's failure to maintain and operate itself in a "sanitary manner."

Knight says 100 "critical deficiencies" were noted at the Waldron plant by FSIS inspectors between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30, 1997. The USDA last year recorded a whopping 4,100 deficiencies of varying severity at the plant - far above the normal level,says Knight, even for a large plant like Tyson's Waldron operations, which employs 1,100 people at the plant itself, and another 400 in related operations on the grounds.

On Jan. 16, Tyson responded to the USDA with a written plan to appropriately dispose of products that might be contaminated; restore sanitary conditions; prevent the recurrence of direct contamination or adulteration of the product; modify its standard operating procedures concerning sanitation; and prevent the product from being contaminated with fecal material.

The USDA responded by temporarily lifting its suspension - effectively allowing the plant to reopen - while watching the plant to see if it would live up to the promises of its action plan.

But, according to the USDA, the problems were far from fixed. After Jan. 23, a "substantial number" of records were issued to the Tyson plant, the USDA says, for various types of noncompliance. The problems concerned sanitation both during and before operational hours; further violations of the USDA's zero-tolerance policy on visible fecal contamination; and mistakes in the reprocessing of products and the trimming of inflammatory process.

On Feb. 10 and Feb. 25, Dr. Robert Baker, inspector in charge for FSIS on the case, notified the plant of its noncompliance with regulations, along with its failure to follow its own action plan.

"The Springdale district office has concluded that your establishment does not have the ability to maintain or implement the required control systems to prevent contamination or adulteration of product at this time," Schilmoeller wrote to Tyson.

In his letter, Schilmoeller demanded that Tyson Foods identify the process the company used to determine the nature and cause of the fecal contamination and sanitation problems, and the reason that the plant's food safety control systems haven't fixed the problem. Tyson also was asked to specify what actions it had taken or planned to eliminate the problems and their sources.

Presumably, Tyson answered all these questions to the USDA's satisfaction - at least for the time being - for the plant was allowed to reopen on the night of April 15 after Tyson submitted a new action plan to USDA.

When the plant closed for the second-time, Nicholson says, some poultry product was shipped from Waldron under USDA seal to Tyson's Berryville plant, where it was reinspected, he says, and approved for consumption.

Plant Acquired From Valmac

The Waldron plant was built in 1961 by Arkansas Valley Industries, which became Valmac in 1969. Valmac and its poultry division, Tastybird Foods, were acquired by Tyson in 1984.

The plant processes about 1.3 million chickens a week, and "further-processing" operations on site produce marinated, frozen chicken products that Tyson also makes in roughly 10 other U.S. sites, Nicholson says.

The plant has a total payroll of about $17 million, and the complex where the plant is situated - including a feed mill and other Tyson operations - has a total payroll of about $19 million.

Despite the inconvenience, Nicholson says the closings have not caused any major harm to the company.

"Right now, as far as I know, our customers are being served," he says. "At some point in time we'll probably have to do some catch-up work."

During the most recent plant closing, Waldron Mayor Patrick Travers and others complained that the USDA was abusing its authority in implementing new inspection standards and shouldn't have closed a plant that is so important to a town of only 3,300 residents. Travers went so far as to call for a congressional investigation of the USDA's actions in the case.

But the USDA's Knight defends her agency's policies and actions. "Our system is based on the prevention of contamination and reducing, preventing or controlling bacteria that could cause food-borne illness," she says. "The responsibility of the plant is to have a system in order that prevents these things from happening. In addition, the inspector can take action at any time for something that he sees happening immediately to adulterate product.

"In the old days they used to just trim it off, wash it off. They would have to make sure that the product was wholesome, but then the system could keep on running. There was really no attempt to address what was wrong in the whole setup here."

In July 1996, she says, President Clinton signed into law a new inspection procedure called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Inspection System, or HACCP, which is being phased in over a two-year period. The first stage of the policy, which took effect Jan. 1, implemented standard sanitary operating procedures and was the basis for the first closing of the Waldron plant. On Jan. 26, she says, the government began requiring the plans to implement systems to make sure contamination didn't happen in the first place.

"By looking at the whole system, I think that we'll be preventing a lot of problems from going through rather than just catching the ones that do," Knight says.

"We're now holding the plants responsible for producing safe food," she says. "The action that was taken last week was based on the failure of the HACCP system to prevent adulterated product from being produced or shipped."
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Title Annotation:Tyson Foods Inc.'s WAldron poultry plant
Author:Haman, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 20, 1998
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