A salmonella outbreak in Foster Farms chicken contains several antibiotic-resistant strains that may explain an unusually high rate of hospitalization.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that some salmonella strains found in the outbreak were resistant to one or more drugs -- and that 42% of those sickened have been hospitalized.
"That's about double the hospitalization rate of a regular salmonella outbreak," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a public health alert Monday linking some raw chicken products produced in California to a salmonella outbreak.
The agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service found chicken produced by Foster Farms at three California facilities with strains of Salmonella Heidelberg.
So far, 278 illnesses have been reported in 18 states, with 77% of those cases occurring in California, according to the CDC.
The outbreak has sickened people ranging in age from an infant to 93 years old, the CDC said.
Investigators have yet to trace the illnesses to a specific product or production period, but said that raw items from the plants in question will bear one of the establishment numbers P6137, P6137A or P7632.
Most of the chicken was distributed to retail outlets in California, Oregon and Washington, according to the USDA. Foster Farms said in a statement that no recall is in effect and that products are safe to eat if properly handled and fully cooked.
“We are committed to ensuring the safety of our products, and our family-owned company has maintained an excellent food safety record during its near 80-year history,” said Foster Farms President Ron Foster in the statement.
Salmonellosis is among the most common of bacterial food-borne illnesses and can be life-threatening, especially when it hits victims with weak immune systems. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within eight to 72 hours of consumption.
Cooking poultry so that the meat reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit will kill salmonella.
Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said salmonella does not trigger an automatic recall like E. coli outbreaks because it's not considered an adulterant.
But health officials have been lobbying the USDA to change that, arguing more dangerous strains of salmonella resistant to antibiotics have emerged in recent years.
But unless the USDA deems salmonella an adulterant, it's often up to producers to issue a recall. Cargill issued a voluntary recall of nearly 30,000 pounds of ground beef last year because of potential Salmonella enteritidis contamination.
"We think the USDA should require this [Foster Farms] meat to be recalled," Smith DeWaal said. "We believe these antibiotic-resistant strains are too hot for consumers to handle in their kitchens."