The U.S. Department of Agriculture has threatened Foster Farms with shutting down the three plants involved in the recent salmonella outbreak, according to a NBC News report Wednesday. And Consumer Reports magazine said that it had tested samples of chicken from one of those plants back in July and found traces of the same salmonella strain.
This outbreak, the second to hit Foster Farms in the last year, has already sickened nearly 300 people in 17 states. It is caused by the especially serious salmonella Heidelberg bacteria that has caused a higher-than-normal percentage of victims to be hospitalized. Furthermore, several of the strains that have been found have been resistant to the antibiotics commonly used to treat such illnesses.
NBC reports that USDA officials sent a letter to Foster Farms President Ron Foster detailing the findings and saying that the company had until Thursday to come up with a plan to correct the problem or the government would withhold inspections, effectively shutting down the plants, which are located in Fresno and Livingston.
Despite the outbreak, Foster Farms has announced no plans to recall any of its chicken products, nor did it recall any chickens in the previous outbreak, which sickened more than 100 people between January and July of this year.
There is no legal requirement for companies to issue recalls in cases involving whole – rather than ground – meat, but they could do it voluntarily.
“From a business standpoint, it sends a tremendously bad message to your customers,” Craig Hedberg, a food safety expert and professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, told NBC. “They obviously have this strain present in their chickens and they’re not adequately controlling it in their plants and it’s getting out to customers.”
Instead, Foster Farms has repeated advice that consumers should clean thoroughly, avoid cross-contamination and cook the chicken beyond 165 degrees – a temperature that will kill any salmonella bacteria.
“It is outrageous that Foster Farms has not issued a recall in the face of so many illnesses associated with their product,” Urvashi Rangan, toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center, said in a statement.
Rangan said that other companies have issued recalls after as few as 12 illnesses. And he said that, given the severity of this outbreak and its resistance to antibiotics, the company should recall any chicken processed at those plants immediately.
“We are calling on Foster Farms and the retail outlets that sell Foster Farms to recall the chicken processed at these plants. Foster Farms has a responsibility to public health to take this step. Telling consumers to not worry and cook their chicken thoroughly is simply inadequate and irresponsible. How many illnesses will they wait for before taking action?”
Foster Farms’ Foster said in a statement on the company website: “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. We deeply regret any foodborne illness that may be associated with any of our products. Food safety is at the very heart of our business. It is a continuous process of improvement. In addition to collaborating with FSIS and CDC, the company has retained national experts in epidemiology and food safety technology to assess current practices and identify opportunities for further improvement.”