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WASHINGTON - No. 3 U.S. poultry producer Pilgrim's Pride knew the listeria bacteria was present at its Pennsylvania poultry plant months before its products were blamed for killing eight people last summer, U.S. Agriculture Department officials said on Wednesday.
Pilgrim's Pride recalled 27.4 million pounds of its Wampler brand ready-to-eat turkey and chicken products in October after USDA inspectors found the plant's floor drains had tested positive for listeria.
Vincent Erthal, who was a federal meat inspector for the night shift at the Wampler plant until September, said the company had found an "exceedingly high" number of listeria bacteria in the plant months before the recall.
Wampler defended its actions, saying it had tested for listeria since 1999 and always shares the results with USDA meat inspectors.
"We routinely provide our environmental test results -- both positive and negative ?- for USDA's review," David Van Hoose, CEO of Wampler, said in a statement. "USDA inspectors, including Vince Erthal and the inspector in charge, Debra Martin, were periodically seen reviewing records ... indicating to us that they certainly were familiar with the records we maintained for them and for their review."
USDA Undersecretary Elsa Murano said Pilgrim's Pride employees had routinely tested for listeria and found "a spike" in July and August for its presence.
However, the company did not share the information with USDA because federal regulations do not require companies to test for the bacteria, according to the department. Murano said the USDA did not know of the tests until late September when an investigation was conducted.
"If we had that information that would have certainly have made our inspectors look to see why there was spike," she said. Murano said this would have included additional testing and surveillance by federal inspectors.