Photos and internal documents from a Beyond Meat Inc. plant in Pennsylvania show apparent mold, Listeria and other food-safety issues, compounding problems at a factory the company had expected to play a major role in its future.
Products from the plant tested positive for Listeria, a harmful bacterium, on at least 11 occasions during the second half of last year and the first half of 2022, according to an internal document provided by a former employee concerned about conditions at the plant. The occurrence of the bacterium at the facility was confirmed by two former employees, who asked not to be named discussing private information about the company. While Listeria is frequently present at food plants, it's more unusual for it to be found in the products themselves.
Photos taken by a former employee from inside the plant in January and April show what appear to be spills, unsafe use of equipment, and mold on walls and ingredient containers, while spreadsheets, photos and internally prepared reports reveal that foreign materials such as string, metal, wood and plastic have been found in food from the plant at least as recently as last December.
Inspections by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture in March and September "found no instances of nonconformance with regulations," and the company's food-safety protocols "go above and beyond industry and regulatory standards," a spokesperson for Beyond Meat said. The company didn't comment on its internal documents or specific details about the conditions in its plant, such as the apparent presence of mold and references to safety violations.
"Mold growth takes a while -- that underscores a lack of cleanliness," said Bill Marler, a food-safety attorney, after viewing some of the photos. "If neat and tidy is 1 and filthy is 10, I'd put this at an 8."
Chief Executive Officer Ethan Brown once envisioned this plant, located next to the Pennsylvania Turnpike about 45 minutes from Philadelphia, as a key part of Beyond Meat's goal of building a "global protein company" that competes with the meat industry. After buying the facility and some of its equipment in 2020, the company planned upgrades to help reduce the cost of producing its plant-based hamburger patties, sausages and other items. That could help it compete with conventional meat. Last year, the company filed plans with the local township to double the facility's size.
But expansion plans now are on hold as the company reduces spending and high inflation limits demand for plant-based meat, which remains pricier than animal meat. By volume, refrigerated meat alternatives sold at retail fell 11.9% for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 9, according to data from market research group IRI Worldwide. Add in the company's declining stock price, a steady drop in cash reserves and upheaval in the executive ranks, and Brown and his team have little room to maneuver.
"External third-party audits, including our most recent third-party audit in May 2022, gave the plant the highest-possible rating in each of the last three years," a spokesperson said. Beyond Meat said the company is in good standing with Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture. The company didn't give details about the audits or provide the names of the auditors. The plant is one in its U.S. network that processes Beyond Meat's raw material into finished products.
Reports of Listeria found in the products are organized in a spreadsheet reviewed by Bloomberg that shows weekly test results from the plant. The document shows 11 incidents of Listeria out of 56 tests in the period from early June 2021 through late June 2022, with the most recent positive case in May of this year. Listeria is destroyed by cooking food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many of Beyond Meat's retail products, such as its meatballs and hamburger patties, are sold raw and must be cooked by the consumer.
William Madden, co-founder of Whole Brain Consulting, which specializes in connecting companies with co-manufacturing partners, said Listeria is common at food plants, but it's usually present in drainage areas. Finding it in the food is a serious problem, he said. "It shouldn't be occurring in your food, not in any detectable level," he said. "If this was a co-packer, I'd be telling you it's time to move, but they actually own this place."