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USDA Clears Foster Farms to Continue Operating

WASHINGTON—Although it faces a Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak that has sickened nearly 300 people in 17 states, Foster Farms can continue to operate its plants.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) had threatened to withdraw inspectors from Foster Farms, which would have shut down the poultry operation. But Foster Farms submitted documentation to the agency in response to a letter that raised concerns about the company's food-safety practices amid a Salmonella outbreak.

"Foster Farms has submitted and implemented immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations," said Aaron Lavallee, a spokesman with FSIS. "FSIS inspectors will verify that these changes are being implemented in a continuous and ongoing basis."

Lavallee also said FSIS will step up sampling over the next three months.  

Ron Foster, president of Foster Farms, has expressed empathy to the victims while continuing to defend the safety of his company’s poultry products that have not been formally recalled. But Foster's assurance—that his "facilities have always met and exceeded USDA standards"—was contrary to the government's position in a recent letter.

Foster Farms is running afoul of food-safety regulations and has failed to modify a plan to control such hazards despite being notified of the ongoing outbreak during the summer, FSIS declared in an Oct. 7 letter that was circulating online before the agency reviewed Foster Farms' plans.

The 74-year-old, family-owned business has not issued a recall of the raw chicken because it maintains the products are safe to eat if properly handled and fully cooked. The products were mainly distributed to retail outlets in California, Oregon and Washington. However, illnesses have been confirmed in 17 states.

"The alert that regulators issued based on illnesses over the past seven months emphasized the need to fully cook and properly handle raw poultry," Foster states on the company's website.

FSIS wasn't satisfied with Foster Farms’ advisory. In the letter, FSIS District Manager Yudhbir Sharma contends the business has breached sanitation regulations and has an inadequate food-safety, or so-called HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points), plan.

Sharma cited "findings of fecal material on carcasses" as well as "poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary non-food-contact surfaces and direct product contamination."

In September, FSIS inspected the company's facilities in Fresno and Livingston, Calif., and Kelso, Wash. As of Oct. 5, 38 samples tested positive for Salmonella, according to the letter.

"The prevalence of Salmonella in finished poultry products poses a risk to public health," Sharma wrote. "As demonstrated by the FSIS Salmonella verification testing, your establishment has failed to prevent the production of products contaminated with Salmonella and of a serotype known to cause human illness."

This is not the first time Foster Farm chicken has been implicated in a Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak. A report released by CDC on July 10, 2013, concluded Foster Farms chicken was the likely source of a multistate outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections that sickened 134 people and hospitalized 33 in 13 states between June 4, 2012 and May 6, 2013.

In the most recent outbreak, of the 278 individuals infected with seven strains of Salmonella Heidelberg, nearly half (42%) have gone to the hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The health agency has reported no deaths.

Nearly 80% of the illnesses have been reported in California, said the CDC, which has brought back doctors and scientists to monitor foodborne illness in spite of the partial government shutdown that placed food-safety employees on furlough.

"Of the California patients from whom information is available, illness onset dates ranged from March 1 to Sept. 24, 2013," according to the California Department of Public Health.

Symptoms of Salmonella include abdominal cramps, diarrhea and fever. Most individuals recover within a week, but infants, the elderly and people with weak immune systems are at risk of suffering more serious illnesses, the health department said.

Deaths from Salmonella occasionally occur, such as the Peanut Corp. of America outbreak that has prompted a criminal prosecution following 714 illnesses in 46 states, including 9 deaths.

According to the CDC, the Foster Farms outbreak has been linked to illnesses in 17 states,  including Alaska (2), Arkansas (1), Arizona (11), California (213), Colorado (4), Connecticut (1), Florida (1), Hawaii (1), Idaho (2), Michigan (2), North Carolina (1), Nevada (8), Oregon (8), Texas (5), Utah (2), Washington (15) and Wisconsin (1).

Local, state and federal officials linked the illnesses  to Foster Farms brand chicken through epidemiologic, laboratory and traceback investigations.

The CDC is partnering with state health departments to monitor the outbreak while FSIS continues its investigation. Raw products from the facilities under investigation bear one of the following establishment numbers inside a USDA mark of inspection or elsewhere on the package: "P6137", "P6137A" and "P7632".

"At this point in the investigation, FSIS is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period," FSIS stated in an Oct. 7 health alert.

Meantime, state and federal officials are recommending that consumers cook chicken at proper temperatures, so pathogens like Salmonella are destroyed.

"Cooking chicken fully to 165ºF will kill the bacteria that are present," said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health, in a statement Wednesday. "Provided that consumers do not cross-contaminate fully cooked chicken with raw chicken juices, it is safe to consume."

Marc Sanchez, a food attorney and regulatory consultant in Atlanta, explained Salmonella is deemed a natural bacteria rather than an adulterant, so USDA doesn't have authority to recall the poultry. He cites court decisions that have held "USDA lacks the authority to shut down a plant for repeated failed Salmonella tests."

“How meaningful are inspections without enforcement tools?," Sanchez said, pointing out disparities between the power of USDA and the increased authority of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the nearly 3-year-old Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

"The Foster Farms recall highlights some risks in having two agencies and two sets of regs," he told Food Product Design.

 

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