USDA Allows Chicken Processor Behind Salmonella Outbreak To Remain Open
October 11, 2013

USDA Allows Chicken Processor Behind Salmonella Outbreak To Remain Open

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

An outbreak of salmonella Heidelberg linked to raw chicken from three processing plants in California has so far not caused any further illnesses. Despite threats to shut down the plants, the USDA has announced that Foster Farms, the company behind the outbreak, can now remain open.

The company, which was also linked to a salmonella outbreak that surfaced last year, has made “immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations,” the department said in a statement.

The outbreak has sickened 278 people in 17 states; earlier it was reported that 18 states were involved in this outbreak. Federal regulators said they would continue to monitor the company’s improvements and will sample poultry products frequently over the next three months to ensure safety of product.

While there have been no recalls on chicken by Foster Farms, grocery chain Kroger Co. has implemented a recall on all Foster Farms poultry products tied to the processing plants involved from its stores. Keith Dailey, a spokesman for Kroger, told USA Today that the product has been removed from its shelves, as well as from other stores owned by the grocer on the West Coast, southern Nevada and New Mexico.

In a statement on Wednesday concerning the safety of its products, Foster Farms CEO Ron Foster, said: "It should be noted that while no illness is ever acceptable, the time period for this issue was over the course of six months from March to mid-September. During that time, more than 25 million consumers safely consumed Foster Farms chicken."

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a statement that the outbreak, which began in March, was continuing and that some illnesses popped up as early as two weeks ago. It said the majority of illnesses have occurred in California.

The biggest concern with this outbreak is the high rate of hospitalizations, noted the CDC. It said that 42 percent of salmonella Heidelberg victims had been hospitalized, nearly double the normal rate. And the fact that this strain is traditionally resistant to antibiotics, it makes the outbreak much more dangerous.

Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health, agreed with the USDA’s decision to allow Foster Farms to remain open. He said he has also not requested Foster Farms to recall its chicken products because the food is safe to eat if handled and prepared properly.

"Chicken is a raw animal protein that is expected to have some level of naturally occurring bacteria present," Chapman said in an interview with USA Today’s Elizabeth Weise. If consumers cook it to 165 degrees, any salmonella bacteria in the chicken will be killed. "Provided that consumers do not cross-contaminate fully cooked chicken with raw chicken juices, it is safe to consume.”

The USDA says that salmonella is always presumed to be present in US poultry and is generally acceptable under USDA rules. It says that up to 7.5 percent of chicken in a plant may test positive for salmonella before action may be taken.

However, this outbreak has been much different than previous salmonella outbreaks.

Seven strains of salmonella Heidelberg have been discovered in this outbreak. Several are considered antibiotic-resistant bacteria including one that is resistant to seven different antibiotic drugs, according to the CDC’s Christopher Braden.

While the outbreak has been viewed as much more dangerous than previous outbreaks, so far no deaths have been linked to this one.

Common symptoms of salmonella food poisoning include diarrhea, stomach pain and fever. Symptoms usually begin within eight to 72 hours after consuming contaminated poultry. Illness can last up to seven days, with some experiencing chills, nausea and vomiting as well, according to the CDC.

As for Foster Farms, the USDA told the company owners on Monday that it had three days to inform the agency how it would clean up its facilities.

By Wednesday evening, CEO Ron Foster said on the company’s website: "On behalf of my family I am sorry for any foodborne illness associated with Foster Farms chicken. [Our staff is] continuing to work around the clock to fully address this situation."