With the latest Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak firmly linked to Foster Farms chicken processing plants, situated across California, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued the company with an ultimatum – resolve the health and safety issues within three of its major processing plants, or face their closure. However, as the number of persons infected continues to rise, the USDA has come under fire for not closing a number of Foster Farms facilities, as the number of infected hits 317.
Epidemiological, laboratory and traceback studies implicated a total of three Foster Farms plants in the dissemination of antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella Heidelberg. Interviewing those that were infected with the pathogen, 105 out of 132 persons claimed to have consumed chicken a week prior to their illness. Of the 61 individuals that could recall the brand of chicken they had eaten, 79% of these persons alleged they had consumed Foster Farms chicken products.
Meanwhile, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) isolated four out of seven Salmonella strains, perceived during the outbreak, in five of Foster Farms’ retail samples of chicken breasts and wings. Four of the identified strains were found to be resistant to one or more commonly used antibiotics, whereas another two strains were resistant to three or more classes of antibiotic (multidrug resistant).
In light of these findings, and official inspections of several plants, the USDA made contact with Foster Farms to highlight the gravity of the situation. The USDA pointed out Foster Farms’ failings, drawing their attention to “… poor sanitary dressing practices,” unhygienic food and non-food contact surfaces, as well as contamination of several of their products, at two plants in Fresno and a plant in Livingston. The organization maintained that these plants represented a significant health risk and demanded that Foster Farms formulate plans to correct these issues, lest their facilities face closure.
USDA Defends its Position on Permitting Foster Farms to Remain Open
Despite the number of infected having risen to over 300, affecting individuals from over 20 different states, as well as Puerto Rico, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) permitted all three of the afore-mentioned Foster Farms chicken processing plants to remain in operation.
In a statement released by Aaron Lavallee, a USDA spokesman, the basis for allowing these facilities to remain open was briefly discussed:
“Foster Farms has submitted and implemented immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations… FSIS inspectors will verify that these changes are being implemented in a continuous and ongoing basis. Additionally, the agency will continue intensified sampling for at least the next 90 days.”
Furthermore, thus far, there has been no recall of Foster Farms chicken products, with federal regulators claiming that the chicken is safe to eat if properly cooked. Nonetheless, USDA-FSIS issued a public health alert on Oct. 12, recommending consumers take the necessary steps to ensure they limited their chances of exposure. They advised customers follow cooking instructions, ensure the chicken’s internal temperature reaches 165 °F, and remain aware of variable cooking times, which depends upon the cooking method employed and original product temperature.
Meatingplace managed to obtain an exclusive interview with the USDA Assistant Administrator for FSIS Field Operations Daniel Engeljohn. Engeljohn explained that the organization did not believe Foster Farms’ products to be adulterated:
“We had data suggesting Foster Farms was producing product associated with the illnesses but we were not able to associate that with any particular time in which the product was produced or day of production.”
Salmonella is not defined as an adulterant, as it is typically always present within chicken products in small quantities; suppliers can take necessary precautions to reduce the amount of Salmonella present, but are unable to certify their products are free of the bacteria. The Salmonella can also be eliminated by ensuring chicken products are suitably cooked to 165 °F.
On the other hand, E. coli O157:H7 and six other E. coli strains are considered adulterants in a number of beef products. These strains are considered highly virulent and, since consumers prepare beef products in different ways, cooking was not guaranteed to eliminate the pathogen.
In terms of whether the USDA has the legal authority to force Foster Farms to recall its products, Engeljohn explained that they can request a voluntary recall. At some point, if the USDA were to suspect that the company’s products were adulterated, they could seize and withhold the products; however, this would require definitive proof that the goods had become adulterated.
According to the National Chicken Council the USDA has a performance standard of 7.5 percent for Salmonella in whole carcass chickens. EngelJohn, however, explains that a particular processing plant cannot be shut down for exceeding this figure. According to Meatingplace, the level found on a number of chicken product samples, acquired from Foster Farms facilities, was 24 percent.
USDA Slammed by Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports claims to be disappointed with the USDA’s latest decision to allow Foster Farms processing facilities to remain functional.
Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center expressed his concerns to the Los Angeles Times:
“It is outrageous that Foster Farms has not issued a recall in the face of so many illnesses associated with their product.”
Rangan goes on to explain that a number of other professional companies have, in the past, taken the decision to enforce product recalls in the event that as few as 12 people had
become infected. Given the rate of disease spread, the number of reported cases of hospitalization and the presence of antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella, the company should feel obligated to enact an immediate product recall.
LA Times indicates that the company failed to enact a product recall of chicken goods during a previous outbreak, which resulted in over 100 people having become infected earlier on in the year. Legally, the company is not obliged to enforce a product recall, something that food safety expert Craig Hedberg claims to send a “… bad message to your consumers.”
Whilst the USDA is slammed for not closing the Foster Farms plants, a Costco store in South San Francisco is currently recalling around 40,000 pounds of Kirkland Signature Foster Farms rotisserie chicken goods, sold to customers between Sept. 11 and Sept. 23. The recall is linked to the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak, according to FSIS officials. Earlier on in the week, Kroger grocery stores took down a number of Foster Farms raw chicken products from their shelves, and notified customers that they could have procured infected meat.
By: James Fenner