If you had to read Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle in high school, then you would know just how notorious the meat packing industry was back in the early 20th century. Unfortunately few paid a similar amount of attention to the plight of immigrant communities who worked in early meat packing plants. But as should be clear from lingering on the tech beat, technology changes, but history can often repeat itself (in both cases).
Maker of plant-based meat products Beyond Meat has been hit with several exposes at the beginning of the week about its ongoing financial struggles, but Bloomberg came out swinging Monday with a report that the company’s Pennsylvania plant has had major problems with mold and bacteria. The issues have been present for the past several years, according to leaked internal documents. Bloomberg reported based on photos and documents provided by a former employee that there appears to be mold growing on containers, boxes, and walls inside the factory.
Beyond Meat bought the co-packer facility in 2020 from one of its former co-manufacturing partners Devault Foods, apparently bringing in former Devault employees into the Beyond Meat fold. It was a move that founder and CEO Ethan Brown told investors would help them process its current alternative meat products and even bring new products to the market.
Documents given to Bloomberg reportedly show that 11 of 56 product tests from June 2021 through June 2022 contained Listeria, a harmful bacteria that can be found in meat products. The more recent instance of Listeria was discovered in May this year, and two other unnamed former employees confirmed the bacterial product infections with Bloomberg. Listeria should be destroyed when food is cooked, according to The Food and Drug Administration, though eating raw food with Listeria could result in food poisoning.
Documents also reportedly revealed that between August 2020 and June 2021 there were multiple instances of cross-contamination with products, of passed expiration dates, and foreign products being found inside Beyond Meat products, like plastic, string, or wood. Beyond Meat’s reportedly noted the last instance of debris being found in their products was back in December last year.
Of course, those were the cases the company tracked. In April this year, Costco in Canada recalled Beyond Meat burgers when they found pieces of wood packaged inside the imitation meat. Gizmodo could not verify which Beyond Meat factories supply Canadian Costcos.
Gizmodo could also not independently verify the photos or the documents. A Beyond Meats spokesperson told Gizmodo:
“Our food safety and product quality management protocols are stringent, going above and beyond industry and regulatory standards. The most recent Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture inspections of the facility (in March and September 2022) found no instances of nonconformance with regulations, and we remain in good standing with the department. In addition, audits conducted by accredited third-party auditors, including most recently in May 2022, gave the plant the highest possible rating in each of the last three years.”
However, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture told Gizmodo that the last time the department visited the plant was in September to get the company to pay up for its annual $35 registration (read that report here). The spokesperson also mentioned that the agency conducted a “limited inspection” after Bloomberg reporters contacted them about the $35 registration. We will update the story if the DOA can provide any further details about investigations of the plant after Nov. 17.
Though plant-based meats seemed to be the latest craze during the early pandemic years, Beyond Meat has seen a downturn of late. The company cut 19% of its global workforce, approximately 200 employees, after experiencing degrading profits year-over-year. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the company’s reduced prospects are indicative of the entire plant-based-meat industry. The Journal especially noted that some past high-level employees took issue with CEO Brown, especially for his focus on growth at the cost of knowing how to actually produce the product. Researchers at Deloitte noted earlier this year there’s been practically no growth in the number of people buying plant-based meat alternatives.
The plant is located in Charleston township about 45 minutes from Philadelphia, and according to minutes from town meetings from 2021, local residents have complained about odors and noise coming from the plant. The company had been ruminating on expansion plans but those designs are on hold due to the company’s dour financial prospects, according to Bloomberg’s report.
Beyond Meat has other factories, including one in China, as well as an R&D center in El Segundo, California. The company makes its product in Columbia, Missouri before shipping it to its co-manufacturing and packaging plants, like the one in Pennsylvania.