The media spotlight is on Foster Farms, the California-based chicken processing giant, as over 300 people have become sick from a salmonella outbreak last March. The outbreak had been traced to Foster Farms and, accordingly, the USDA issued a safety alert for Foster Farms chicken on October 7.
Salmonella is a bacteria that causes cramping, diarrhea and fever within 8 to 72 hours from ingesting. While death from salmonella poisoning is not common, it is a possibility. In the United States, salmonella is the leading cause of food related illness. However, cooking to 165 degrees will make salmonella-tainted meat safe for consumption.
Most of the salmonella cases have come from California. Foster Farms holds close to 65% of the West Coast’s market for broiler chicken. Three of its plants, all located in California’s Central Valley, have been sourced as the origin of the outbreak.
Consumer groups are questioning why Foster Farms has not issued a recall. Foster Farms maintains, however, that it has always adhered to the USDA standard that permits a salmonella incidence rate of about 10% in raw chicken.
The spike in salmonella related illness, however, did prompt the USDA to threaten Foster Farms with closure of its three plants in question. Instead, Foster Farms was able to show the USDA that it had made progress in containing the bacteria.
The president and CEO of Foster Farms, Ron Foster, spoke to media on Friday. He insisted that putting the “consumer at risk” is “the last thing” he wants. According to him, his staff found the weakness in the system that propagated the outbreak.
At present, salmonella levels in chickens are tested by the USDA only at the time of slaughter. However, the poultry is not tested again when it is further processed into wings, breasts, drumsticks, etc.
The veterinarian and senior vice president of technical services of Foster Farms, Robert O’Connor, assured that the testing process has been altered to include a retest of the chicken at the time of parts processing. Consequently, infected meat has been identified and removed. Another added change is the continuous sanitization of cutting equipment that was previously only cleaned after 2 hour intervals.
Mr. Foster asserts that these changes will raise the bar for the food industry’s standards in safety and sanitation.
Foster Farms’ media interviews on Friday are the first since the outbreak was found to originate from its plants. The Livingston based company has been in the chicken business for 70 years. Still, it succumbed to a 25% dip in sales when media announced that several antibiotics had no effect on the salmonella Heidlberg, the bacterial strain coming from the tainted chicken.
Still, no recall has been issued by Foster Farms – even though consumer groups are asking for it. In the meantime, Costco continues to recall its Foster Farms chicken products. In the timeframe of Sept. 24 through Oct. 15, some 13,500 rotisserie chickens and parts have been cleared from its South San Francisco location.
However, Foster Farms is confident that its chicken, if cooked to reach 165 degrees internally, is perfectly safe.
Written By: Fatema Biviji