Diversity Arrives in Poultry Processing with Female CEO at Foster Farms

Aug. 18, 2016
The appointment of Laura Flanagan by the company’s board of directors concludes a 22-month search to replace Ron Foster, who led the firm since 2003.

The poultry business’s good ol’ boy network has been shredded by Foster Poultry Farms Inc. Effective Aug. 29, Laura Flanagan will assume the titles of president and CEO.

The appointment by the company’s board of directors concludes a 22-month search to replace Ron Foster, who led the firm since 2003. Foster announced he would step down in October 2014. He will remain as a board member and owner.

In a prepared statement, Foster called Flanagan “the ideal executive to guide Foster Farms during a period of significant growth. She has an impressive record of transforming and growing household consumer brands across an ever-shifting landscape.”

For the last eight years, Flanagan has served as a division head at Conagra, first as president of the convenient meals division and then president of the snacks division. She also led initiatives to promote diversity, build skills and capabilities and develop internal talent.

Flanagan began her career as a manufacturing engineer at Saturn Corp. After earning a MBA from Stanford, she assumed brand management positions at General Mills and Pepsico, including a stint as vice president and chief marketing officer of Pepsico’s Tropicana shelf stable juices operations. She serves as a director of Core-Mark International, a supplier to convenience stores.

Livingston, Calif.-based Foster Farms employs more than 12,000 and is ranked among the U.S.’s 10 largest poultry and turkey processors. The company also has a dairy processing division. Foster Farms ranks No. 199 on Forbe’s list of America’s largest private companies with 2015 revenues of $2.3 billion.

A grandson of the company’s founders, Foster had a tumultuous ride as the firm’s CEO. Sales grew 70 percent under his leadership, and Foster Farms became the largest provider of organic and antibiotic-free fresh chicken on the West Coast. In 2010, it became the first major poultry processor to be certified by the American Humane Association. The firm received a Gold Effie Award for its “Say No to Plumping” campaign, an effort to deny all-natural labeling for chickens injected with a brine solution to add up to 15 percent in total weight.

In recent years, the company’s chicken was linked to an 18-month outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg that affected consumers in 29 states and Puerto Rico. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed more than 600 illnesses attributable to the chicken, though some estimates put the total at more than 10,000. During USDA’s investigation, FSIS inspectors in January 2014 shut down the company’s Livingston, Calif., facility, citing “egregious insanitary conditions” after observing cockroaches near the production line

Beginning in April 2014, the firm began a system-wide upgrade of equipment, processes and testing to reduce the prevalence of Salmonella in slaughtered chickens to below 5 percent, investing $125 million in food safety in the subsequent 18 months and drawing praise from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

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