LIVINGSTON, Calif. — With his company's poultry sales plunging after a salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds of consumers, the head of Foster Farms has apologized for the biggest food safety lapse in the family firm's history.
The Merced County producer was thrust into the national spotlight this month when chicken from its three Central California plants was found to be contaminated with a particularly virulent strain of salmonella that has proved resistant to antibiotics.
Speaking at his company's headquarters in Livingston, Calif., about 25 miles south of Modesto, President Ron Foster acknowledged that the reputation of California's No. 1 chicken producer had taken a serious hit. He said sales had dropped 25% since the outbreak became public this month.
Foster said his firm had not identified the source of the pernicious strain, nor could he explain why company and government inspectors failed to detect it before it reached consumers. But he said Foster Farms was committed to reducing the ubiquitous bacteria that is a challenge for poultry producers nationwide.
"We truly regret any illness associated with our products," said Foster, who is the grandson of the company's founders. "Our brand was built on trust and I think we violated … our consumers' trust. And it's now our responsibility to earn it back and we plan on doing that by having a gold standard chicken in the market."
Foster also defended his decision not to recall Foster Farms poultry even when it became clear that sickened consumers were being hospitalized at rates far higher than those associated with typical food-borne illness.
He said that the tainted birds met or exceeded industry standards for salmonella, and that the firm's products were still safe to eat if handled properly and cooked to a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
"If we had pulled our product from the market and put someone else's in, we'd be lying to the consumer because you're saying someone else is better," Foster said.
"We couldn't find anything that was broken" with the process, added Foster, whose grandparents Max and Verda Foster founded the company in 1939.
Consumer advocates have been calling for a recall of poultry from three Foster Farms plants in Central California linked to the outbreak, which has sickened at least 338 people to date across 20 states.
The strain, known as Salmonella Heidelberg, has proved especially virulent and resistant to some antibiotics. About 40% of consumers sickened have been hospitalized, double the usual rate associated with such outbreaks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kroger Co., which operates Ralphs and Food 4 Less, has already pulled chicken from its stores from the three plants — two in Fresno and one in Livingston.
The chicken in question can be identified in supermarkets with USDA marks of inspection P6137, P6137A or P7632.
Costco also issued a recall of rotisserie Foster Farms chicken from a South San Francisco store after a consumer reported falling ill from eating cooked product.
Salmonella is a common bacteria and omnipresent in poultry, often from birth. Because it can be killed through cooking, government regulators allow some levels of the contaminant in poultry plants. But the pesky bug is a constant concern for the industry, in part because strains are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
After the recent salmonella outbreak, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors found multiple cleanliness violations at Foster Farms' operations, including fecal matter on carcasses. In response, the firm agreed to develop plans to bolster food safety at its three California plants.
Officials said that among the new upgrades, the company has begun vaccinating birds for Salmonella Heidelberg. It's also feeding chickens probiotics — a sort of good bacteria — to combat salmonella in the birds' digestive systems. Foster Farms is also requiring poultry breeders who supply the company with chicks to certify that the birds are free of salmonella.
Within its processing facilities, Foster Farms has increased sterilization efforts on surfaces, equipment and workers' clothing. Officials admitted the company had lagged behind in its safety procedures inside the plants because it focused its energy on the farms, where the threat of salmonella contamination was greater.
S.F. Bilgili, a poultry expert at Auburn University, said the measures were appropriate given the scope of the outbreak.
"They're not necessarily groundbreaking, but they're not very common either," he said. "They're certainly way up there as far as salmonella control standards are concerned."
John Carey, a professor in the Department of Poultry Science at Texas A&M University, said that demanding that breeders supply salmonella-free chicks was standard nowadays. But he said vaccinating specifically for Salmonella Heidelberg and feeding probiotics was uncommon.
"These are appropriate steps and should be effective," he said. "They're steps in the right direction."
Foster said the company has already reaped rewards from the new safety measures.
Since implementing the new measures, he said, the company was close to achieving one of its chief goals: reducing the instances of salmonella on its chicken parts from an industry average of 25% to 5%. Foster said sampling shows the company is currently at 5.6%.
Whole chickens, meanwhile, showed no evidence of salmonella, Foster said. The industry as a whole usually finds salmonella on 3.5% of its whole birds.
Foster believes that the reduction in salmonella is sustainable and hopes that other poultry producers will follow suit.
Although some food safety advocates have called for a major reduction in the use of antibiotics in farming, Foster Farms officials defended their use of these drugs.
Robert O'Connor, Foster Farms' chief veterinarian, said the company's chickens are fed antibiotics in the early stages of their lives to prevent a common gastrointestinal disease.
"There are antibiotics used very sparingly," O'Connor said. "There has to be a reason for treating a flock. There has to be a disease that requires us to treat."
He said those antibiotics have no human equivalent — and therefore shouldn't conflict with treatment of human illness.
However, some critics of antibiotic use in agriculture note that drugs for animals can sometimes interfere with those for humans, even if they're not the same.
Both O'Connor and Foster believe that the worst has passed for the outbreak, largely because the company moved quickly to address shortcomings in its facilities.
"Our goal was to get improvements in place as soon as possible," Foster said.
Pierson reported from Livingston and Hsu from Los Angeles.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times