A US food safety inspector has said that a series of listeria-based food poisoning outbreaks, one of which has been blamed for eight deaths since July, could have been found sooner if the government had taken a stronger line.
Vincent Erthal, in an interview the Associated Press, said he wrote two years of reports on repeated sanitation violations that may have led to bacterial growth at Wampler Foods in Franconia, Pennsylvania.
Erthal stated that workers at the factory prepared raw poultry in the same area where ready-to-eat food was processed, and that they were often careless when cleaning the floors, sometimes spraying poultry meat in the process. Erthal added that inspectors would tell the plant when they were going to do random testing, giving the plant an opportunity to cover up unlawful and unhygenic production practises.
Erthal also told Associated Press that he blamed Agricultural inspectors because of their uncertainty over intervention when harmful bacteria was discovered.
During the course of October this year Pilgrim's Pride, the owner of Wampler Foods, recalled 27.4 million pounds of sliced deli poultry in October after government officials found listeria in a floor drain. The recall was the largest ever in US history, however none of the recalled meat was infected with the particular strain of listeria found in the drain.
Erthal is making serious allegations, but "has not produced any proof, any evidence," Elsa Murano, undersecretary for food safety told the Associated Press in response to the comments.
She also confirmed that she had asked the inspector general's office to investigate his claims.
"All of our employees have available to them the Office of Inspector General (for whistle-blowing), and Mr. Erthal didn't do that," Murano said. "I need to know, frankly, if what he's saying is right, is true, is accurate, then we need to correct that and make sure it doesn't happen again."
Murano added that the department is currently toughening food safety rules, citing a directive that took effect Monday. That directive states that inspectors will have to test plant environments for listeria unless plants do it themselves and that the results must be shared with the government.