October 10, 2013

USDA: Poultry Plants Must Correct Salmonella Problem

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave Foster Farms until TODAY (72 hours) to correct problems at its California facilities that led to a salmonella outbreak in 18 states, as reported by Fresno Bee and other news sources, or the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) would withdraw its inspectors. 

As poultry plants are not permitted to operate without these inspectors, the California poultry processing plants, including two in Fresno and one in Livingston, would essentially be forced to shut down.

Nearly 300 cases of salmonella have been reported, most of them in California (including five in Fresno County). 

USDA sampling in September showed that raw chicken processed by Foster Farms' California facilities included strains of salmonella that were linked to the outbreak. But the company has not recalled any of its products. 

In the letter to Foster Farms, USDA those samples, coupled with illnesses, suggest that the sanitary conditions at the facility "could pose a serious ongoing threat to public health." 

The outbreak, with the first illnesses reported last March, has had a high rate (42% of the victims) of hospitalizations. The federal CDC described this as about double the normal rate. This strain is resistant to many antibiotics, making it a more dangerous outbreak.
The letter said that Foster Farms failed to demonstrate that it has adequate controls in place to address the salmonella issue; in one of the facilities, 25% of the samples were positive for salmonella. In addition, prior to the outbreak, USDA inspectors had documented "fecal material on carcasses" along with "poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary nonfood contact surfaces and direct product contamination."
Despite other evidence they have gathered, USDA and CDC inspectors have not been able to definitively link the illnesses to a specific Foster Farms product.
Inspectors in Washington State found outbreak strains of salmonella in a leftover sample of raw Foster Farms chicken in an ill person's home; however, USDA officials were not able to decipher the label on the chicken, so they could not prove which of Foster Farms' specific products caused the illnesses.
The CDC said the salmonella illnesses appear to be linked to another Foster Farms outbreak last year and earlier this year, when 134 people in 13 states were sickened with one of the same strains of salmonella that has made people ill in the current outbreak.
Salmonella is a pathogen that contaminates meat during slaughter and processing, is especially common in raw chicken. The pathogen can be life threatening to those with weakened immune systems and causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within a few days of eating a contaminated product.
Remarkably, these infections can be avoided with proper handling and cooking of raw poultry.
Consumer advocates have petitioned the USDA to declare Salmonella to be illegal, as is E. coli, but the USDA is reluctant to do so. Thus, salmonella outbreaks in poultry can take longer to discover and recalls don't happen as quickly.
Given the evidence, officials said that withdrawing meat inspectors and shutting down the plant are the best regulatory measures. If USDA were to force a recall, it would likely have to go through the courts.
Given similar scenarios, many companies have conducted voluntary recalls. And, even though the meat hasn't been recalled, some grocery stores are taking it off their shelves anyway.
USDA inspectors are considered essential government employees, so they have continued to work during the federal government shutdown. Dozens of inspectors work at the Foster Farms plant in Livingston, one of the largest in the country.

Nevertheless, the shutdown has hampered the government’s response to food safety issues. While USDA's meat inspectors are on the job, the CDC furloughed many of its investigators. But the agency recalled many of those workers Tuesday to work on the salmonella outbreak.
In a statement Monday, Foster Farms said the company regretted any illnesses, was taking steps on its own to ensure food safety, and is working with the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the incidence of salmonella at its California plants.
"Foster Farms has instituted a number of additional food safety practices, processes and technology throughout company facilities that have already proven effective in controlling salmonella in its Pacific Northwest operations earlier this year," the company said.
Foster Farms employs about 11,000 people in chicken and turkey operations in California, the Pacific Northwest and the South. About 3,000 work at the processing plant in Livingston, and more than 1,000 work in its Fresno County facilities, including poultry processing and hatcheries.

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