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Pasco frozen food processor aims to restart production after recall

By Wendy Culverwell Tri-City Herald

CRF Frozen Foods is unable to identify the contamination source that prompted a massive recall and led the company to lay off 300 workers at its Pasco plant.

Gene Grabowski, a consultant acting as spokesman for CRF during the crisis, said the company will turn its attention from trying to find the source of the deadly listeria pathogen to securing federal approval to restart production.

It’s not unusual for the source of a Listeria monocytogenes outbreak to elude investigators.

Bill Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark, a Seattle law firm specializing in food safety, said hunting for listeria is akin to hunting for the proverbial a needle in a haystack.

Listeria is a common pathogen, but it takes only minute quantities to sicken and even kill humans. Its presence doesn’t mean a plant is overtly unclean.

“You don’t have to have a filthy, dirty, horrible plant to have listeria,” said Marler, who is in Washington, D.C., this week to discuss food safety issues with the federal officials, including White House staffers and members of Congress.

“The cleanest plant in the world can be harboring listeria.”

CRF won’t resume production until the U.S. Department of Agriculture gives its authorization.

First, it will conduct its own testing and review CRF’s records. Grabowski said there’s no way to know when CRF might get the green light to resume packing frozen fruits and vegetables.

CRF Frozen Foods recalled 15 products on April 22 when tests linked a strain of listeria in products made at its Pasco plant to eight patients in Maryland and California. Two patients later died, though their deaths were not directly attributed to listeria.

On April 25, CRF expanded the recall to cover all 358 frozen organic and traditional fruits processed in Pasco dating to May 2014. Many recalled items likely are lurking in customers’ freezers. For a complete list of recalled items, visit the company’s web page.

The products were sold under 42 different brand names in a wide variety of groceries, including Trader Joe’s and Safeway. CRF’s Organic By Nature line is carried in Costco stores.

Marler said state and federal regulators have taken tougher stances on listeria on the growing realization of the threat it poses to human life. Nearly everyone sickened by listeria is hospitalized and about a third die, he said.

CRF is affiliated with R.D. Orffutt Co., a Fargo, North Dakota, agriculture and equipment giant. CRF acquired the assets of Bybee Foods in May 2013, including the Pasco processing plant, now 10 years old.

The company laid off about 250 workers in early June, ostensibly to give them an opportunity to procure seasonal work during the shutdown.

Grabowski said it can cost tens of millions of dollars to contend with the outbreak of foodborne illnesses. Companies typically finance the cost with reserves, lines of credit and insurance.

Marler said his firm has been contacted by listeria patients, though none whose cases have been genetically linked to the strain found in CRF products.

There are no known suits against CRF to date, though it’s likely some will emerge. Marler said CRF could face a separate barrage of suits from its grocery partners if they seek to recover the cost of dealing with the recall.

“It could be enough to sink any company,” he said.

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