WASHINGTON — Pilgrim's Pride Corp. is recalling 27.4 million pounds of ready-to-eat chicken and turkey products in what U.S. officials called the largest meat recall in the nation's history.
Pilgrim's Pride, the second-largest U.S. poultry company behind Tyson Foods Inc., suspended operations at its Wampler Foods Inc. plant in Franconia, Pa., after testing found the presence of listeria monocytogenes. The bacteria causes an estimated 2,500 cases of flu-like illness and 500 deaths annually.
"We found pretty extensive listeria throughout the facility," said Steve Cohen, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Neither the company nor the USDA would specify in which states or to which stores or eating establishments the food was distributed, other than to say that the Pilgrim's Pride cooked turkey and chicken products produced from May 1 to Oct. 11 were distributed to grocery stores, restaurants and food-service institutions throughout the United States.
The deli products were sold to consumers under the Wampler Foods brand and select private labels. The company said consumers who have products made during the recall period should return the meats to where they were purchased.
The recalled products include roasted turkey breast, chicken breast and cooked deli-style chicken. All products bear the establishment code "P-1351" inside the USDA inspection seal.
Two of the three largest meat recalls in U.S. history have occurred this year as the USDA is under pressure from Congress to improve meat and poultry inspections. ConAgra Foods Inc. in July recalled almost 19 million pounds of ground beef from a plant in Greeley, Colo., some of which was contaminated with the E. coli bacteria.
The previous largest meat recall was of 25 million pounds of frozen hamburger patties in 1997 by Hudson Foods Inc., USDA records show.
"We're working diligently with the USDA and our customers to make sure any product that has not yet been consumed is removed from the marketplace and consumers' homes as quickly as possible," David Van Hoose, chief executive of Pilgrim's Pride, said in a statement.
The recall announced Sunday is an expansion of the 295,000 pounds of products recalled Wednesday.
All but the most recently produced 10 million pounds of meat being recalled probably has already been consumed or discarded, said Richard Cogdill, the company's chief financial officer.
Listeria can cause high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness and nausea, according to the USDA. It can be fatal in young children, the elderly and people with weak immune systems and can cause miscarriages and stillbirths.
Listeria is killed when it is cooked, so the only chance for contamination is when the product is wrapped, Van Hoose said. The company will change its production methods to ensure that the wrapping process doesn't contaminate the meat, Van Hoose said.
Shares of Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim's Pride gained 3 cents to $7.01 in New York Stock Exchange trading Friday. The stock has fallen more than 48% this year. Cogdill declined to estimate how much the recall will cost the company.
"We have a thorough and comprehensive insurance program that we feel sure will cover the company," he said.
Though the recall is a record, the 27.4 million pounds is not a significant portion of the U.S. production of turkey and chicken products, which tops 30 billion pounds annually.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month said turkey deli meat tainted with listeria monocytogenes may be the source of more than 120 illnesses and 20 deaths from food poisoning in the Northeast and Midwest.
Federal and state health officials have been investigating the food-poisoning cases since last month, the USDA said. The outbreak occurred in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The USDA and the company said there was no known connection between those cases and the poultry recalled by Pilgrim's Pride.
On Oct. 1, Pilgrim's Pride said it lost 10 cents to 15 cents a share in its fiscal fourth quarter because of low chicken prices and higher feed costs. Pilgrim's Pride had net income of $12.9 million, or 31 cents a share, in the fourth quarter of 2001.
The USDA has about 7,600 inspectors in 6,500 meat and poultry plants nationwide.
Contaminated foods cause an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.