A $3.5 million prison food factory touted as a way to save taxpayers money is in trouble.
The Airway Heights Food Factory was forced to recall meals for the elderly last summer after two inspections found food-handling violations and tons of rotten chicken on the premises.
As a result of the problems, most of the state’s 18 prisons canceled their contracts. The big kitchen is now bringing in less than half the $1.1 million it needs to break even.
‘We are having to build credibility all over again,” said Janeen Wadsworth, director of correctional industries for the Department of Corrections in Olympia.
When it opened in 1993, the gleaming factory staffed by inmates was supposed to churn out 8,000 meals every eight hours. Officials predicted the high-tech kitchen would soon feed most entrees to the state’s 12,270 prisoners.
But the 17,500-square-foot factory isn’t saving money.
The factory provides about 35 percent of the food for 1,400 inmates at Airway Heights. It also sells meals to non-profit groups statewide, including a dozen senior nutrition programs and the Spokane AIDS Network.
State Corrections Department records obtained by The Spokesman-Review show a series of problems, including:
Complaints from prisons statewide about poor food - including “green” creamed beef, slimy meatballs, undercooked turkey, even a bloody Band-Aid in a biscuit at Airway Heights.
Citations from the state Department of Health in May for thawing ground beef at room temperature for several hours and other improper food handling procedures.
Protests from inmate kitchen workers after the factory bought a shipload of surplus food from a dry-docked U.S. Navy ship - much of it with expired freshness dates.
A major flap over a May 21 delivery of several tons of bad chicken from a Minnesota supplier, marked “BAD CHIX” and “DO NOT USE,” ordered for Meals On Wheels entrees.
Kitchen managers say none of the bad chicken was used. The supplier, Channelmark Corp., apologized and said the spoiled chicken should have gone to a landfill.
“Our staff assures me none went through,” said Fred Straub, general manager of correctional industries at Airway Heights.
But workers and kitchen supervisors at other prisons say that wasn’t the case.
Several inmate kitchen workers insist some of the chicken was cooked. “Some of it was used,” said inmate Ethemer Jay in a letter to the newspaper. He was fired from his job after he complained.
Three kitchen managers from other prisons spotted the bad chicken on its way to the ovens during a high-level Department of Corrections audit.
The June 3-6 audit was prompted by a barrage of quality complaints, and by a state health inspection on May 14.
“The Audit Team objected to the use of tainted chicken and after much discussion … 250 pounds were discarded. We were told that 6,000 pounds … was discarded on 6/3,” said the team’s report.
On June 20, Olympia prison officials recalled all meals with ground beef and chicken that the factory had made from May 22 to June 17 and delivered to Meals on Wheels programs in Yakima, Olympia, the Tri-Cities and Spokane.
“Our internal audit was disturbing, and we didn’t want a Jack In The Box type incident,” Wadsworth said, referring to the E. coli outbreak in 1993 that killed three children and sickened hundreds.
“We don’t know why they were recalled. It was never spelled out in the memo. They just assured us there was no major problem,” said Scott Coit, director of senior services for the Community Action Council in Olympia.
Nutrition managers reported no incidents of food poisoning. Most say they like the factory because its economical meals make scarce federal dollars stretch.
With a bid several cents below competitors, the Airway Heights service “has been a good deal for us,” said Wendy Weyer, nutrition project coordinator for Skagit County Senior Services in Mount Vernon.
“In 1996, we saved over $3,000 by making the switch. We are fairly satisfied with the service,” Weyer said. Her home-delivered meal program has a $250,000 annual budget and serves about 500 people.
As a result of the recall, the senior nutrition program in Olympia hired another company to serve as a backup in case anything else goes wrong, Coit said.
The factory audit had other consequences.
On June 17, Tom Rolfs, director of the state Division of Prisons, rescinded an earlier directive from Corrections Secretary Chase Riveland for all prisons to order 13 percent of their meals from Airway Heights.
That action cut factory income in half.
“This cessation is a result of serious concerns regarding Food Factory operations” surfacing from the audit and the Health Department report, Rolfs said.
The Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla halted its orders for factory entrees in June, said spokeswoman Mary Christiansen.
“Now, we are only getting bakery items from them,” Christiansen said.
Prison officials also ousted the Food Factory’s two senior managers and brought in a respected manager from the Washington Correctional Center at Gig Harbor. Santos Lamas is staying at Airway Heights until February.
“His instruction is to fix it so it stays fixed,” Wadsworth said.
Last week during a tour, the kitchen was bustling as a crew of 60 inmates worked in white coats.
Sack lunches for the nearby Airway Heights prison rolled off a conveyer belt. Soup made in man-sized vats chilled in a vast metal quick-chill machine. Bakers made Kaiser rolls and bread in a corner of the kitchen.
It was a different scene from that painted in affidavits from inmates employed at the factory earlier this spring.
They depicted a kitchen in turmoil, with some workers indulging in recipe tampering to get back at supervisors.
The prisoners say they were threatened with immediate firing for talking about problems. They also accused their bosses of trying to hide ongoing problems - including altering some of the 1991 expiration labels on the Navy food by writing in new 1996 expiration dates before a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection.
The inmates sent samples of the expired and altered food labels to The Spokesman-Review - including a large “Do Not Issue!!!” sticker from a crate of cherry jam.
Straub strongly denies using unsafe Navy food. Some 10 tons of frozen food, 2,000 cases of dry goods and a truck of produce were closely examined, he said.
“We inspected everything” and tossed out food that didn’t look right, he said. Despite the “expired” labels, much of the food was safe because it was in undamaged cans and crates.
The complaining inmates are “liars” who resent supervisors, Straub said.
The high-tech factory was the brain child of Loye Studer, the corrections department’s food service program manager.
In an interview when the facility opened in Airway Heights in 1993, Studer called it the most sophisticated in the nation. “It’ll pay for itself in just a few years,” he said.
It hasn’t - so far.
One reason may be resistance from other prison kitchens. Wadsworth and Straub say kitchen managers didn’t like Riveland’s order to buy at least 13 percent of their food from Airway Heights.
This caused resentment because each prison already had a kitchen and staff.
When food quality problems escalated this spring, food managers at other prisons responded with a barrage of complaints to Olympia.
Food managers have “strong concerns” for their liability if anyone gets sick, said Paul Brand, business manager at the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe.
They fear “damage to their reputation/careers if food poisoning, etc., should occur,” he told Studer.
With the embarrassing recall behind it, the factory is trying to get back on track.
In an Aug. 28 follow-up inspection, the health department found many problems were addressed. “There has been significant improvement in overall operations” since May, inspectors noted.
Straub said he hopes to rebuild its contracts by January, increasing income from $55,000 a month to $115,000. He presented his plan to the prison system’s board of directors at a Sept. 13 buffet and board meeting at the Airway Heights kitchen.
The factory has a dual goal: to provide good meals and to help its inmate staff get good jobs after prison, Straub said. “We’ve had a setback, but we will eventually be successful,” he said last week.
The state’s fiscal watchdog wants to make sure that happens.
Auditor Brian Sontag said he’ll take a close look at the factory’s profitability and operations. The audit will be complete by Jan. 1. “We want to make sure this is working for taxpayers,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHEN THE TROUBLE BEGAN A June 3-6 audit of the Airway Heights Food Factory was prompted by a barrage of food quality complaints, and by a state health department inspection on May 14.