FLORENCE, S.C. (WBTW) – A Florence meat-processing plant has a consistent history of unsanitary conditions – including temporarily having flies and having machinery that commonly isn’t cleaned by the time production starts in the morning – according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Dozens of pages of noncompliance reports obtained by News13 show almost constant problems, which, at times, have shut down production at Carolina Fresh Foods. 

The business was suspended by the USDA on April 26, 2021, which was adjusted to a suspension in abeyance four days later, according to a quarterly report, after the company “violated a regulatory control action.” The business was cited for breaking sanitation standard operating procedures, hazard analysis and critical control points, and “other.” 

The case was closed in August, according to a quarterly enforcement report published by the USDA.

However, some insanitary conditions have continued, according to more recent records. There is no current USDA action on the facility.

News13 requested inspection records from Jan. 1, 2021, until this spring. Frequent issues include machinery that wasn’t cleaned before production started, meat that was picked up off the floor and placed back into production without being sanitized, and meat consistently failing testing for pathogens. The business also allegedly falsified records. 

Jim Robison, the chief financial officer at Carolina Fresh Foods, told News13 in an email that there is no pending federal action against the facility, and that it is operating within compliance.

He said the site began processing mechanically separated chicken and ground chicken for Premium Protein Processors/Cheraw Packing after the company’s site in Cheraw burned down. Those products were processed for a single customer, and the plant received raw meat from its supplier. The products were shipped to three freezers and were not sold fresh or in local markets.

The customer accepted the chicken that tested positive for salmonella, stating that cooking would kill the bacteria, according to Robison.

“Our first corrective measure was applying a food grade antimicrobial spray on the product,” Robison said. “That was approved by USDA.”

When the plant continued to have problems with positive salmonella tests on raw meat, it reviewed the results with the customer and the USDA inspector, according to Robison.

“Seeing that the problem with raw material was not improving, we then took further corrective action and discontinued production of Mechanically Separated Chicken and Ground Chicken on December 14, 2021,” he told News13.

The process

News13 contacted the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service division regarding the violations, including if the number of noncompliance citations piling up for the business is unusual. The agency provided information about inspection processes, but did not address the company’s violations.

The USDA FSIS has enforcers on site daily, according to a spokesperson. The inspectors are there to check that commercial meat is safe and that facilities are in compliance with food safety laws. They also test products for pathogenic contamination. 

Inspectors document any issues on a non-compliance record, which cites what rules have been violated and how future violations can lead to disciplinary action. Inspectors are able to stop production lines, slow them and seize products.

There is no set threshold for how many violations a facility has to have before action is taken, according to the spokesperson. Further action can include issuing a notice of intended enforcement, which can escalate to having marks of inspection withheld, or withdrawing inspectors. If that happens, then the business cannot continue slaughtering or processing animals.

If a business still refuses to comply, then an administrative complaint is filed to withdraw the facility’s grant of inspection. 

2021’s unsanitary conditions

Inspection documents reflect USDA FSIS staff noting violations against Carolina Fresh Foods. Issues from 2021 start with meat being dropped on the floor, picked up and then returned to a production line without being properly inspected, and then continues to other issues like bathroom pipes leaking water onto the floor, possible contamination by used boxes touching unused ones and a history of failing pathogen tests. 

The facility consolidated with another in March 2021 after Cheraw Packing burned down, according to documents. It searched for a new building, but there were none available.

Product was placed on hold in early April 2021 due to an “elevated” noncompliance rate, according to documents. Later that month, an employee went into the trailer holding the product. No product was taken out, but the company was told to “reiterate the extreme significance of maintaining” the control action, and that violating it could lead to a suspension. The inspector “informed plant management that it is inappropriate for an establishment with over 30 years of experience in the meat and poultry processing industry to claim ignorance in response to such issues.”

The business told the inspector that training would be given “to reinforce the sanitary procedures in the plant and significance of properly implementing them.”

Shortly after, the business received an early warning notification due to how many noncompliance issues it had received.

Robison said the incident happened when employees were repacking a load of product for a third-party customer and was told that the meat was raw, but then discovered it had been cooked. Because the facility was not approved to repack cooked product, it stopped production and stored it in a refrigerated trailer with a USDA hold tag. The employee who opened it was temporary and searching for supplies, Robison said, and the facility notified the USDA, which then suspended the grant of inspection pending a review of plans.

The employee was disciplined and the facility trained all employees, according to Robison.

“We immediately initiated a full review of our HACCP Plan, made necessary changes and submitted those to USDA Atlanta Filed [sic] Office,” Robison said.

The facility coordinated with a deputy director and were told on April 30 that the suspension was moved to a suspension in abeyance. The business had monthly review visits from an enforcement investigation analysis officer for the next three months, who gave the plant feedback and a positive review.

None of the product that was held “entered the marketplace,” Robison said, and it was disposed of in July 2021.

Other inspection records found flaking paint and rust on the walls and ceiling in the sizing and bagging area. There was also product debris on walls, floors and overhead structures when the plant started for the day.

Records also show that the plant kept pushing back when it would start salmonella testing – a process that lasted months. Chicken was put on hold for weeks.

On May 27, 2021, an inspector went to the grinding department and saw that it had begun production when it wasn’t allowed to. The inspector stopped the work. 

On June 4, 2021, the inspector found flies on the shipping dock, condensation, holes in the floor, insanitary bathrooms, loose/bent door frames, door panels, wall panels and ceiling panels, according to the records. 

By July, when salmonella testing still hadn’t started, the inspector told the plant that it had to “explain why sampling is not being performed and how they are ensuring product is wholesome and unadulterated in the absence of sampling.”

That same month, the inspector saw that condensation was dripping from the ceiling onto meat in the sizing room. The inspector also noticed meat was being placed into boxes with another businesses’ label and mark of inspection on it. When asked about it, a manager stated “that they have been doing this for many years and that most of the product is later used in their own deboning and cut-up operations.” The USDA official responded by stating that that wasn’t in compliance with federal rules, and that the boxes needed to have Carolina Fresh Foods’ name on it.

On July 15, the inspector noticed that a trailer stored both edible and inedible products and was “in general insanitary condition,” including that it was warm and covered in bloody water and debris. There was also a “foul odor” coming from it.

By the end of July, plant officials and the inspector had a meeting about “recent trends in noncompliance.” Not only were verification procedures not being done properly, according to the documents, “but the records are also being falsified to make it appear that things are being done that are not. Regardless of whether this was done out of ignorance or intentional noncompliance, the result is a diminished confidence in the records designed to support that the system is being adequately implemented.” 

“If falsification of records is observed again, it could warrant immediate enforcement action,” and “verification results should not be documented unless they are actually performed,” according to the documents. 

On Aug. 27, noncompliance records show that there was an “excessive” amount of meat on the grinding room floor, along with debris on a wall next to a drain outside the breakroom. There was a “strong urine odor” in the bathroom, a toilet wasn’t flushing properly and there was puddled water and a stopped-up drain.

On Oct. 8, the inspector “suggested that there seems to be a culture of production at the expense of food safety and this culture needs to change. He provided notification that he will be monitoring this closely and documenting any noncompliance observed. He further expressed his opinion that adequate training is needed.” 

A week later, the inspector declared that an antimicrobial sprayer didn’t have adequate coverage, suggested reviewing procedures, and “adding that if they receive wholesome product and keep it wholesome while processing it, then they should be able to produce and ship wholesome product.” In addition, “that since they know they have an issue with pathogenic bacteria, a prudent establishment would be expected to address the issue whether sampling continues or not.”

On Oct. 22, the inspector saw that more meat was being picked up from the floor and then being returned to production without being sanitized. 

“This trend is very disturbing,” the documents note.

By November, the facility had surpassed more than half of its “maximum allowable positive rate” during a 52-week sampling window for contaminated meat, according to the documents. Management was told that if the issues weren’t resolved, the plant could face further action. 

Other issues throughout the year included roaches, consistently seeing equipment that wasn’t clean when production began. In one instance, an employee said they weren’t aware they had to sanitize surfaces instead of wiping them down with water alone 

Flies “have been a consistent ongoing issue at this plant, indicating that the pest control program does not appear to be adequately preventing the harborage and breeding of pests on the grounds and within establishment facilities,” according to the documents.

2022’s continuing issues

Those issues have continued this year, according to the documents. 

This January, an inspector found raw sewage in the parking lot, according to the records. A plumber fixed issues in February, but in the process, an existing line was left disconnected, which led to more dirty water coming from the manhole. The inspector saw pieces of chicken, fat and trash in the wastewater. 

It was issued another noncompliance notice on Jan. 7 about reusing boxes. There were also plumbing issues and holes in the floor. Employees were keeping their belongings out of a designated area, therefore creating an insanitary condition, which wasn’t an issue with space, but “primarily an issue with lack of concern on the part of the employees,” according to the documents. 

A Jan. 25 report notes that multiple samples in the last six months were positive for campylobacter – a bacteria that can cause diarrhea.

A new plant manager was hired in February. At the time, the plant had eight open noncompliance reports.

The meat continued to test positive for campylobacter, and the inspector witnessed employees picking up meat from the floor, handing it to someone else to sanitize it and then returning to work without washing their hands.

The inspector suspected in March that people were smoking in bathrooms, and found algae growing in a cooler. 

The last entry, dated March 9, states that rusty-colored water was dripping from the ceiling onto the meat. The inspector wrote that they told the plant manager of “the establishment’s failure to adequately address contaminated dripping from the ceiling in the production area,” in accordance with guidelines, and that after being told about the issue, the facility failed to monitor the area to make sure it didn’t happen again.