Al Feucht of Brandon Meats —
Surviving a Product Recall

No food service company large or small is immune from the dangers of a product recall. Just ask Al Feucht, owner of Brandon Meats and Sausage, Inc., a meat processor with 25 employees located in Brandon, Wisconsin, 90 miles south of Green Bay. On May 21, 2001, Feucht, who has worked in the retail and wholesale slaughtering meat business for over 20 years, found his life a stress-ridden nightmare after state meat inspectors informed him of a Listeria contamination. Suddenly, the company he had owned since 1985 and which processed more than nine tons of meat each week for local customers, was teetering. It is a personal tale all in the food industry can profit from. What exactly happened?

Al Feucht: We were in the kill room, slaughtering on Monday morning, when my son came back and told me we had some hot dog samples that had tested positive for Listeria at the state testing lab. We immediately performed a total plant shutdown—we went through and cleaned everything, and tried to locate where this Listeria might be coming from and to determine how it got on the hot dogs. The next day, in came the state meat inspectors and we began swab testing.

FTS: Was the product still on the premises?

Feucht: The product that was contaminated was still in my cooler—it was in containers, sealed, and retained for sampling. The problem was that we had made another batch of hot dogs the same day, cooked in a different smoke house on a different rack, but they had been in the same cooler with the contaminated hot dogs. And we’d already sold those to customers. So, the USDA asked us to recall them, which we did. That was the start of the nightmare.

FTS: How much time had passed since you’d processed the meat?

Feucht: One week. You have to realize, when you’re dealing with the state testing lab here in Wisconsin, seven days passes before you have a result. So this other 100 pounds of wieners was long gone.

“With the state testing lab, seven days passes before you have a result—so the 100 pounds of wieners was long gone!”

FTS: You don’t have on-premise testing?

Feucht: We’re not big enough to have our own lab. But since the recall I’ve started using a private lab with a much quicker turn-around time.

FTS: So, the recall was ordered on Tuesday?

Feucht: Yes. It was very stressful. The inspectors were here at the plant and I kept asking if we really needed to do a recall because we didn’t know if in fact the batch we sold was even contaminated. There were phone calls back and forth and back and forth from Madison to here...What do we do? Should we recall? Should we not recall? It took all day for them to decide, yeah you better do a recall. At that point I said, well this isn’t much of a volunteer recall! I felt like they had a gun to my head.
       Then there was the press release. You see, since it was going to be a voluntary recall of only 100 pounds, the USDA said they’d help me through it. But when they showed me the press release they wanted to send out, all it said was Brandon Meats was making a recall of its hot dogs—apparently they didn’t want to tell the public it was only a 100-pound batch and not tons. I eventually got them to change it and to agree to keep the news local. But it didn’t help. It ended up on TV in Green Bay, which is 90 miles from here. And the press ignored the fact that it was only hot dogs. They made it sound like it was all our meats. So on Wednesday morning, again we’re slaughtering, and the radio is just carrying this thing full blast and people started calling us saying they are getting sick on our steaks. I had to call three radio stations to tell them to get the story right. It was extremely stressful. It’ll drive you crazy.

FTS: Was the government helpful at all?

Feucht: Well, to a point they were. They were in here for a couple days in a row trying to find out how this happened.

FTS: Did you ever find out what the problem was?

Feucht: We eventually found the Listeria in my floor drains. And that was after testing and testing and cleaning and testing. We don’t know how it got from the floor drains to the product other than perhaps through a fresh air vent in the room. It blows pretty good, and it’s right above one of the floor drains. We thought maybe that was getting some of the spores airborne.

FTS: Did anyone get sick?

Feucht: No. Which is good because the people I sell to are my neighbors—those hot dogs were sold right out of my own meat counter, right to the household. And we had customers calling and saying they weren’t going to bring them back because we had such a good reputation. I think two packages came back and we had them tested—they came back negative. But that was a personal thing. I wanted to do that for myself. Because the most stressful part of this is thinking that you have done something wrong.
       I kept thinking, “Oh, man, I’m running a dirty business!” We went through this plant and looked for moisture dripping from the ceilings, we looked for nooks and crannies where the Listeria could be living, and then we find it’s in the drains. Is it coming from the top down? Is it feeding back in from the city sewer line? And I kept asking the USDA how to handle the problem, and they didn’t know. So, we quickly got a chemical company to come in here and they really helped out. We went through the plant three or four nights in a row with very powerful cleaners and chemicals and got it cleaned up.

“The most stressful part of this is thinking, ‘Oh, man, I’m running a dirty business!’”

FTS: What has been the impact on your business?

Feucht: The recall didn’t have much financial impact because we’re a small, trusted outfit. But there were some pretty stressful times here with the employees. That was the worst—one employee would point at another and the other pointed back. It took a long time before some of them felt good about themselves again. My sausage maker blamed himself for the problem, but it wasn’t his fault.

FTS: Has there been an increase in the cost of doing business?

Feucht: Only in terms of the cost of sending samples to the private testing lab. I do some environmental swabbing as well now. And the state accepts the results. But the cost is minimal. I pay $20 per sample. So, if I send off five samples it’s like $100. And to me, the peace of mind is worth that.

FTS: How often do state inspectors test?

Feucht: Every few weeks. We were sending samples off once a week for quite a long time. But the state of Wisconsin is having a budget crunch, and they’ve cut back on a lot of things, including testing. So now they’re down to a couple of products a month.

FTS: If the inspectors weren’t that helpful, where did you turn for advice?

Feucht: One of the chemists at my sausage seasoning company told me what to look for and what to do. And the people at the chemical company. But really, you’re all alone in this. Believe me, I don’t wish it upon anyone. It’s like they say about divorce, you can tell somebody all about it but until you go through it you have no clue what kind of an impact it can have.

FTS: So, you were totally unprepared...?

Feucht: Oh, yeah. You think, well that can’t happen to me. I run a good business. I run a clean business. Then all the sudden, there it is. Believe me, I learned a lot. I recently spoke with a company that processes deli meats; they had Listeria on their slicer. So they had a special oven built and they bake their slicer once a week at 220 degrees for so many hours to make sure everything is killed—which is a great idea but you can’t do that with everything.

“Once the press release goes out, it’s there for anybody to do with as they will.”

FTS: Looking back, is there anything you feel you might have done to be better prepared?

Feucht: Absolutely. For the small guys who are on their own, go to conventions; attend HACCP meetings; educate yourself. One of the first things you are going to learn is, don’t let your employees speak to anyone. When somebody starts asking questions, send them to one person who speaks for the company.
       Also, have a list of your local radio stations and their phone numbers and the contacts ready to go so that if something does come up you can call them personally. Tell them before it busts loose, this is what’s happening; make people aware you’ve got their safety in mind. The media is going to do what they want with the news. There’s no way of handling them unless you’re a big company and you hire a public relations firm. Because once the press release goes out to the Associated Press, it’s there for anybody and everybody to do with as they will.
       And most important, put together a list of contacts you can look to for advice or support, like my chemist friend. And have a testing lab available so you can immediately begin environmental testing. We’re just a small company—our recall was only 100 pounds. But there are a lot of producers out there producing a lot more meat than we produce, and that call can come any time of the day or night. And by the time you get out of your pajamas and get down to the plant, the news will be spreading like wildfire.

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