It all started falling apart in March.

It was during that month that the the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspected the Pasco, Washington facilities of CRF Frozen Foods, the company at the center of multiple massive ongoing recalls, including one for over 40 brands and 350 items of food.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began its investigation of a “cluster” of listeria infections in March. The infections, the oldest dating back to September 2013, involved cases of listeriosis caused by genetically similar strains of the bacteria.

This past week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released the report from that inspection. The report lists multiple violations of federal regulations and various unsanitary conditions at CRF’s Plasco plant.

Plant Inspection Finds Food Safety Flaws

The inspection took place over the period spanning from March 14th to March 17th, just a little over a month before CRF issued its first recall announcement. According to the agency, the inspection was part of a “work plan” created by the Seattle district of the FDA.

The report released by the FDA this past Thursday on an FDA Form 483 listed violations that the inspectors from the agency’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA) found particularly reprehensible. An FDA Form 483 is used only “when, in an investigator’s judgment, the observed conditions or practices indicate that an FDA-regulated product may be in violation of FDA’s requirements,” FDA website states.

Testing Identifies Nonpathogenic Listeria

The results of testing conducted by the inspectors revealed the presence of certain forms of listeria that tend to indicate the presence of unsanitary conditions, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

Often, findings such as these prompt the plant owners to conduct further analyses and tests, which occurred in this case. The test results led CRF to devise a plan to conduct additional cleaning and sampling.

The cleaning and sampling was carried out in the areas that FDA tests showed the presence of Listeria.

Equipment Flaws Preventing Effective Cleaning

Whatever cleaning the company did in the wake of the FDA inspections, it was likely ineffective. According to the FDA inspectors, certain equipment flaws prevented suitable cleaning and maintenance.

The investigators – Jessica Clark, Beau Lamb, and Nichole Broadhacker – found a chipped, cracked shovel that often came into contact with food sitting near the production line.

In another area of the facility, blue tape was being used as a “temporary fix” to a cracked metal plate above a conveyor belt that carried products designated for export to distributors and retailers.

On the onion line – which was “producing organic whole peel onions” during the inspection – the FDA staff observed chipping, cracking, and missing pieces of plastic: clear plastic separating shields were “ripped in the middle and cracked on both edges” and the plastic conveyor belt had “pieces of plastic missing from at least five of the legs [that] come into direct contact with the onions.”

Inspectors also found utility knives with initials etched directly into the blades, making rough surfaces that make removal of bacteria difficult, if not impossible.

FDA, CRF Respond to Plant Inspection

According to the FDA, the findings​ of the agency’s inspection led CRF to identify “additional cleaning and sampling that would be completed in those areas identified with positive results.”​

The agency said cleaning issues are “particularly problematic at plants like CRF’s where food doesn’t undergo processes like cooking that can kill harmful pathogens.”

CRF also issued a response.

“These kinds of equipment issues are common in food companies,” said Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for CRF. “When the FDA finds them, companies immediately set to work to remedy them. CRF was definitely was doing that.”

Part of those efforts apparently involved testing that led CRF to recall eleven products on April 23rd and shut down its Pasco plant. That small recall was just the beginning of the CRF saga.

Fallout from a 350-Product Recall

Less than two weeks after CRF’s initial recall, the company announced it was expanding its recall to include all frozen fruits and vegetables produced at its Pasco plant after May 1, 2014.

In numerical terms, that meant that CRF was recalling 358 distinct products marketed under 42 brands — and every single individual item falling under those categories that had been produced during a two-year period.

The brands included products sold at Costco, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and Kroger. ConAgra Foods and other food giants have also subsequently recalled products implicated in the recall.

The FDA devised a new category for its recall page, to be included under the “Reason/Problem” column: “CRF2016.”

As for CRF’s Pasco plant, the doors remain closed, and the company has already laid off 250 plant workers. It is unknown how many more will be laid off in the coming months.

CDC Ties Listeria Outbreak to CRF-Produced Foods

In May, the CDC announced that it had identified an outbreak of Listeria linked to produce from CRF’s Pasco plant. So far, the agency has identified eight cases of Listeria linked to CRF products.

Two of the cases identified thus far occurred during 2016, while the earliest identified case had an onset date in 2013. All eight people were hospitalized and two died, though health officials said listeria wasn’t the cause of death for either individual.

The CDC and FDA are continuing their investigation into the outbreak, and expect that more cases linked to the outbreak may be identified.

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