Packer's seafood is cited Health violations alleged in Crisfield

November 15, 1992|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Staff Writer

An Eastern Shore seafood company defied regulators and committed numerous health violations while continuing to process and sell crab meat.

Since this summer, Frank Presto, president of Frank's Seafood Inc., in Crisfield, has fought a running battle with the state health department and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The company faces possible legal action. But the plant stayed open, despite violations that included:

* Dangerous bacteria in finished crab meat.

* Faulty temperature controls on pasteurizing machinery.

* Cat feces and flies in critical areas of the plant.

* Dirty equipment, some encrusted with old meat.

* Employees with bandaged hands picking crabs.

* Shipments not being coded to identify the plant.

State and FDA records show that Frank's Seafood kept operating even after the state briefly suspended the company's license in October.

Mr. Presto continued packing crab meat -- and got the license back by correcting some of the problems at his plant.

"Obviously, you do not want [disease-causing bacteria] in crab meat," says Gary L. Pierce, director of investigations for the FDA's Baltimore district. "The finding of it in a finished product creates a hazardous situation."

Mr. Presto insists that all major problems have been corrected at Frank's Seafood Inc., one of the larger of Maryland's 50 crab-processing plants. This year the company has produced about 150,000 pounds of meat.

"My crab meat is safe to eat," says Mr. Presto. "Everything's been taken care of, except for some structural problems."

Eventually, the state is likely to take legal action against the company for not obeying the license suspension, says Jeanette Lyon, acting chief of the health department's Division of Food Control.

She says the violations at Mr. Presto's plant clearly were "serious" ones, but he has since done enough to meet basic health standards.

"We're going to continue surveillance and do a very thorough evaluation before his license is renewed next year," says Ms. Lyon.

Not since 1988 has a Maryland seafood plant had its operating li

cense suspended.

Crab-packing plants are required by law to list their license numbers on the side of all crab meat containers. The number for Frank's Seafood Inc. is MD-199-CP.

The Crisfield company is in no way connected with Frank's Seafood, of Jessup, a retail operation at the Maryland Wholesale Seafood Market.

The battle between Mr. Presto and the regulators began July 21, when an FDA investigator arrived at the plant for a routine annual inspection.

The inspection showed 17 federal health violations. In addition, a laboratory analysis of crab meat samples picked up that day revealed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes, a disease-causing bacterium.

Food poisoning from Listeria causes headaches, fever, nausea or more serious illness. The bacterium causes an estimated 425 deaths in the United States each year.

Most at risk are the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems. No outbreaks from Listeria have been linked to crab meat packed in Maryland.

After the July inspection, the FDA sent Mr. Presto a warning letter and asked him to notify its office within 15 working days of specific steps being taken to correct the problems.

Mr. Presto's reply arrived 12 weeks later. It listed corrections at the plant, adding, "Many of the items on your list . . . are not easily accomplished."

According to the FDA, Mr. Presto voluntarily tried to recall the shipment of crab meat containing Listeria, but some may have been sold through a Maryland distributor. The amount of contaminated meat is not known.

This month, a follow-up inspection by the FDA turned up 14 health violations at the plant. Analysis of new samples of crab meat for Listeria has not been completed.

The FDA says the bacteria levels in the July samples were serious but not high enough to trigger emergency action by the agency.

"This is still an open case," says Mr. Pierce of the FDA. "We have made no decisions as to whether any administrative or regulatory action is warranted."

The state joined the battle Aug. 10.

On a routine visit, a state inspector found numerous violations, including the cat feces, flies and dirty equipment. The inspector also was denied access to part of the plant.

In September, the state requested a meeting with Mr. Presto to discuss the problems; he failed to appear.

In October, the state suspended the plant's license. Mr. Presto defied the action and remained open. Within a few days, he had corrected some of the most serious violations.

The state acknowledged the improvements and allowed Mr. Presto to stay open, with the provision that he fix everything before his license is up for renewal in April.

Why wasn't Frank's Seafood Inc. forced to close?

State officials say they could have sought a court injunction and forced Mr. Presto to close. But he had started to clean up, they point out.

The state also weighed how a shutdown would affect the Crisfield community. Frank's Seafood Inc. employs about 100 people.

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