On Oct. 10, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service reviewed the safety plan Foster Farms put forth to avoid closing three of its California plants located in Livingston and Fresno. Foster Farms has implemented several safety controls over the last 60 days and will install added processes during an enhanced inspection period over the next 90 days. Violations at the plants included unsanitary dressing procedures for employees, unsanitary surfaces, as well as evidence of fecal matter on chicken carcasses dating back to January, according to ABC News.
Foster Farms President and CEO Ron Foster said the process was started more than two months ago and he feels the USDA action validates the company’s progress. “We are putting every resource and all of our energy toward food safety with the confidence that Foster Farms plants will be the most stringent in the country,” Foster said.
The company was threatened with closing three of its California plants in light of the second salmonella outbreak tied to Foster Farms in the last year unless it provided the USDA with a comprehensive plan to deal with the outbreak and improve its processes.
Consumer Reports tested chicken samples in July from one of the plants and found traces of the same salmonella strain, Heidleberg, the subject of the most recent outbreak. The Heidleberg bacteria are resistant to the antibiotics typically used to treat the illness ingesting the tainted chicken causes.
Foster Farms did not issue a recall and instead advised consumers to thoroughly clean and cook the chicken above 165 degrees. In a statement issued by the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center, Executive Director and Toxicologist Urvashi Rangan said, “It is outrageous that Foster Farms has not issued a recall in the face of so many illnesses associated with their product.” The chicken affected is raw chicken with USDA inspection marks P6137, P6137A, and P7632.
Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health and state health officer issued a statement as to why a recall was not initiated. “The CDPH has not requested Foster Farms to recall chickens because, with proper handling and preparation, this product is safe for consumption,” USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee explained further, “Foster Farms has submitted and implemented immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations,”
But while Foster Farms actions appear to have placated the USDA, many are outraged that more action was not taken. Louise Slaughter, a New York congresswoman and microbiologist, feels the actions of the USDA are “disgraceful.”
“Foster Farms has been cited multiple times for sanitary violations just since January of this year. They had ample opportunity after the July outbreak incident traced to their Washington state plant to clean up all their operations, but they chose not to.” Slaughter feels that all of Foster Farms plants are now suspect. And Dr. Richard Besser, chief health and medical editor at NBC News and former CDC director in 2009, told “Good Morning America,” “Until this is over, I would still stay away from this chicken.”
As of Oct. 11, the outbreak spread to 20 states with 317 cases being reported. Grocery giant Kroger, who operates Ralph’s and Food 4 Less, has pulled chicken from the three California plants from its shelves and others are following suit. In Portland, Ore., some local stores have pulled the affected Foster Farms chicken from their shelves.
On Oct. 9, CDPH issued a news release “reminding” consumers to “properly handle and cook raw poultry. Chapman said, “Chicken is a raw animal protein that is expected to have some level of naturally occurring bacteria present. Cooking chicken fully to 165 degrees Fahrenheit will kill the bacteria that are present. Provided that consumers do not cross-contaminate fully cooked chicken with raw chicken juices, it is safe to consume.”
The government shutdown initially impacted the CDC’s investigation into the outbreak. Thirty employees working on food-borne analysis and outbreak response were recalled by the CDC. According to Barbara Reynolds, a CDC spokesperson, “You would expect about 20 percent hospitalizations with salmonella Heidelberg.” According to health officials, 42 percent of those who contracted the disease have been hospitalized.
Symptoms of salmonella infection include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, chills, muscle pains and blood in the stool. The symptoms can last four to seven days.
“In addition to collaborating with FSIS and CDC, the company has retained national experts in epidemiology and food safety technology to access current practices and identify opportunities for further improvement,” said Foster.
The poultry industry routinely uses antibiotics to promote faster growth but food safety advocates are concerned that overuse is causing human resistance to certain types of the drugs used. Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety attorney said, “The USDA has been incredibly gun-shy with salmonella and basically has been punting this problem down the road, while at the same time you’re seeing more virulent and more antibiotic-resistant salmonella. The reality on the ground is not keeping up with science. The fact is, this stuff is more problematic than it was just 10 years ago. It’s a different ballgame.”
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