Seeing this story repeated in numerous outlets, and with a growing mystery beginning to take hold, allow us to share some insight to help identify the most likely reason.
First the article:
(Business Insider) Wal-Mart suddenly closed five stores in four states on Monday for alleged plumbing problems.
The closures could last up to six months and affect roughly 2,200 workers in Texas, California, Oklahoma, and Florida, CNN Money reports.
Wal-Mart employees say they were completely blindsided by the news, having been notified only a couple hours before the stores closed at 7 p.m. Monday.
“Everybody just panicked and started crying,” Venanzi Luna, a manager at a store in Pico Rivera, California, told CNN Money.
All workers will receive paid leave for two months. After that, full-time workers could become eligible for severance, according to CNN Money. But part-time workers will be on their own.
Local officials and employees have questioned Wal-Mart’s reasoning for the closures.
According to ABC News, “no plumbing permits have been pulled in any of the five cities where the stores were suddenly closed for at least six months.” The cities where locations were closed include: Brandon, Florida; Pico Rivera, California; Livingston, Texas; Midland, Texas; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A city official in Pico Rivera confirmed to CBS Los Angeles that the city has not received any permit requests for building repairs.
In Midland, Texas, where another store was closed, a city official told ABC News that his plumbing inspector was turned away when he visited the store and offered to help secure construction permits.
Wal-Mart plumbing technician Codi Bauer, who worked at the now shuttered store in Brandon, Florida, questioned the company’s time frame for the repairs.
“Even if they had to replace the whole sewer line, it wouldn’t take six months to replace a whole sewer line in that store,” he told WFLA.
We reached out to Wal-Mart for comment and will update when we hear back.
A Wal-Mart spokesman told Consumerist that the company had not secured permits “because we have yet to know the full extent of the work that needs to be done. We may also have to do additional upgrades that may require additional permits.” (read more)
The most likely cause of the closing(s) is a positive, usually self-administered, test for Listeria bacteria.
Listeria monocytogenes – Listeriosis, a serious infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, is an important public health problem in the United States. The disease primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems. However, rarely, persons without these risk factors can also be affected. The risk may be reduced by recommendations for safe food preparation, consumption, and storage. (link)
For yet unknown reasons Listeria bacterium has a tendency to take hold, then spread, in food processing areas through drains, pipes and plumbing systems. The use of “purified water”, customary in food handling facilities such as supermarkets, spreads the bacterium to surfaces and equipment.
Once identified it’s a real problem to remove. Essentially a business would need to tear the place apart, including the equipment torn down to bolts and sheet metal, trying to sanitize and remove the bacterium from the facility. At each step a re-test conducted, identified and readdressed until numerous tests come up negative. A painstaking process.
Best practices are to close for business while this process of decontamination is being done. Obviously any business wouldn’t want the publicity about their doing it.
Local health departments and USDA audits do not check for Listeria unless someone gets sick or an outbreak is identified and they are tracing the origin of the illness. Almost all Listeria identifications come as a result of following up with investigations of human illness. As noted in recent media:
Tainted Blue Bell ice cream products are linked to eight listeria illnesses in Kansas and Texas; three of those who contracted the illness have died. Blue Bell has temporarily closed its facility in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and shut down a production line at its facility in Brenham, Texas, where the company is headquartered. Blue Bell has recalled more than two dozen of its products since last month.
Sabra Dipping Co. announced a recall this past week of 30,000 cases of its Classic Hummus due to possible listeria contamination, though no illnesses have been linked to that recall.
[…] Listeria is a hardy bacteria found in soil and water that can be carried by animals. It is often found in processed meats because it can contaminate a processing facility and stay there for a long period of time, and it can grow in the cold temperature of a refrigerator. It is also commonly found in unpasteurized cheeses and unpasteurized milk, and it is sometimes found in other foods as well – listeria in cantaloupes was linked to 30 deaths in a 2011 outbreak (link with additional information)
That’s why many companies such as Wal Mart now do self-audits, swab-tests, and modern businesses test as a proactive measure. Listeria has always been around but with advances in testing it is more readily identified.
The most common place for Listeria to be found is in Deli’s and food processing of products that do not involve cooking before eating.