A Pasco frozen food processor idled by a listeria-related outbreak that reportedly led to three deaths could reopen after a reorganization.
Anne Struthers, communications director for R.D. Offutt, parent to CRF Frozen Foods LLC, indicated the plant may still resume operations.
“The plant remains closed while CRF Frozen Foods’ leadership develops its new business model at a time yet to be determined,” she wrote. “When the plant reopens, we will do so with great care, and with the advise of our regulatory and scientific experts and with full transparency to (regulators).”
She would not elaborate on what form the business model might take or when a restart might happen.
CRF Frozen Foods shut down production in April 2016 and laid off more than 300 workers after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention genetically linked it to Listeria monocytogenes detected in food samples taken for more than two years for its PulseNet public health database.
The plant remains closed while CRF Frozen Foods’ leadership develops its new business model at a time yet to be determined
Anne Struthers, R.D. Offutt Co.
In coordination with the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, CRF recalled 358 products sold under 42 separate brands. An additional 100 products made by other companies with ingredients from CRF were recalled as well.
The recall affected everything produced at CRF’s Pasco plant, 3118 N. Commercial Ave., dating to May 2014.
In its July report on the outbreak, the CDC said nine victims sickened by listeriosis had to be hospitalized, three in 2016 and six between 2013 and 2015.
Three of those victims died. A death in Connecticut was the result of listeriosis. Deaths in Maryland and Washington were not caused by listeriosis..
The CDC linked listeria found several frozen vegetable products produced by the plant to eight of the bacteria strains that sickened the victims.
And a separate frozen pea sample from the same brand was genetically related to one of the strains from a victim.
CRF produced both items.
“This close genetic relationship provides additional evidence that some people in this outbreak became ill from eating frozen vegetables produced by CRF Frozen Goods,” the CDC reported.
Other samples collected from nearby Oregon Potato Co. found a genetic link to eight of the strains from ill people, leading Oregon Potato to recall wholesale onions that had been used in many other products.
While the case may seem ripe for lawsuits, few have been filed so far.
There are no known cases pending against R.D. Offutt in the federal court system, according to an online search. Two have been filed against CRF Frozen Foods.
In the first, Roger Coffelt Jr. seeks class action status in a suit filed in July in Central California. Coffelt alleges his family was sickened by frozen peas he bought at his local Ralphs supermarket, a division of The Kroger Co.
What this company is facing isn’t a deluge of claims from ill people. What they’re facing is this product went everywhere.
Bill Marler, food safety attorney
In the second, Liyun and Jesse Lucas of Indiana sued in October, asserting they ate a package of its frozen vegetables purchased at a Costco in Indianapolis last March. Liyun Lucas became ill with an infected colon and was admitted to the hospital for an overnight visit.
Attorneys representing Coffelt and the Lucases did not return calls.
The lack of litigation isn’t surprising, said Bill Marler, a nationally known food safety attorney from Seattle. It isn’t enough to merely be sickened. To make a legal case, victims must demonstrate a genetic connection through blood or serum testing. Marler said he’s reviewed 50 to 60 claims and concluded none were legally provable.
As for CRF and its parent, the cost of the outbreak is still unknown.
A typical recall can cost $10 million or more and the CRF situation is not typical. The plant has been shut down for more than seven months and its products were widely distributed.
“What this company is facing isn’t a deluge of claims from ill people. What they’re facing is this product went everywhere,” Marler said. “Everyone in that chain of distribution is sending them an invoice (for refunds) and they probably have a lot of zeroes.”