NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN SALMONELLA OUTBREAK
October 25, 2013
Foster Farms: Company Apologizes And Improves Facilities While Mexico Blocks Imports
By Laurie Greene, Associate Editor
Almost simultaneously, Foster Farms issued an apology for the salmonella outbreak and described progress in its new food safety measures—and Mexico blocked imports of the company’s chicken.
Mexico, the top export market for U.S. poultry, told the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Tuesday it was removing two Foster Farms plants in Fresno and one in Livingston from its list of approved exporters. USDA had identified these plants as the likely origins of a salmonella outbreak.
The removing of approval is believed to be the first time Mexico has responded in such a way to a U.S. health alert. While Mexico imposed anti-dumping duties on U.S. chicken leg quarters last year, the ruling has not been implemented because of poultry shortages brought on by avian flu.
Federal inspectors and Foster Farms have maintained that poultry from the processing sites are safe to eat if handled properly and cooked to a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Foster Farms relies overwhelmingly on domestic sales to drive its annual revenue of $2.3 billion; however, Foster Farms President Ron Foster said sales had fallen 25% since the USDA announced its health alert on Oct. 7.
NOTE: California Ag Today deems the Mexican refusal to accept Foster Farms chicken unfair because the consumer has always had the ability and responsibility to avoid salmonella by cooking poultry safely and preventing cross-contamination with other items.
Meanwhile, TODAY, Foster Farms posted the following full-page letter on Fresno Bee’sback page of the A section:
Dear Customers and Friends,
Our family is committed to the safety of your family.
For nearly 75 years Foster Farms has worked hard to earn your trust, and we know that the recent Salmonella illnesses associated with Foster Farms have shaken that trust.
We want to take this opportunity to apologize wholeheartedly.
We also want to let you know what we’re doing to fix this.
We have strengthened our food-safety programs, from our ranches to our processing plants and all the way to the packages you purchase at the store. These measures are designed to go beyond USDA requirements and set a new standard not just for Foster Farms but also for the poultry industry as a whole.
We have drawn upon the best advice, the best technology and the best efforts of our employees to develop these new programs, which have already proven effective in further reducing Salmonella. We will not be satisfied until Foster Farms is once again a product that you purchase with complete confidence.
Foster Farms is a family-run business, and food safety has always been at the very heart of what we do. In the coming days and weeks, I look forward to sharing more about our commitment to lead the industry in food safety. Until then, please take the time to visit our website at www.fosterfarms.com, or call us with any questions at 800-338-8051.
President and CEO of Foster Farms
Since March, the salmonella outbreak from Foster Farms chicken has sickened at least 338 people across 20 states, including at least five in Fresno County. A particularly virulent strain of salmonella, Salmonella Heidelberg has proved resistant to antibiotics, so about 40% of victims have been hospitalized, double the usual rate associated with such outbreaks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
USDA threatened to shut down the plants after inspectors found multiple cleanliness violations, including fecal matter on carcasses.
In response, the firm agreed to develop new protocols to reduce contamination rates and bolster food safety at the three facilities, which continued operating after Foster Farms demonstrated progress on new control measures. Government regulators generally allow some levels of the contaminant in poultry facilities because it can be killed through cooking.
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Yet, USDA announced the recall of more than 13,400 "Kirkland Signature Foster Farms" rotisserie chickens and related Kirkland Farms products such as soup, chicken salad and leg quarters over concerns about salmonella sold at Costco's South San Francisco store between Sept. 24 and Oct. 15.
A previous recall encompassed more than 9,000 Foster Farms rotisserie chickens and related products purchased at the same South San Francisco Costco between Sept. 11 and Sept. 23.
Foster, the grandson of the company's founders, apologized for the biggest food safety lapse in the family firm's history, privately owned and operated by the Foster family since 1939, and acknowledged the reputation of California's No. 1 chicken producer had taken a serious hit.
Foster could not account for why company and government inspectors failed to detect the contamination before the product reached consumers, but he stated, "We truly regret any illness associated with our products; our brand was built on trust and I think we violated … our consumers' trust. And it's now our responsibility to earn it back and we plan on doing that by having a gold standard chicken in the market." He vowed to reassure consumers with improved sanitation and other measures to reduce the ubiquitous bacteria proving a challenge for poultry producers nationwide.
Foster also defended his decision not to recall Foster Farms poultry because the tainted birds met or exceeded industry standards for salmonella, and the firm's products were still safe to eat if handled properly and cooked to a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. "If we had pulled our product from the market and put someone else's in, we'd be lying to the consumer because you're saying someone else is better," Foster said.
Officials said the company has begun vaccinating birds for Salmonella Heidelberg and feeding chickens probiotics, a sort of good bacteria, to combat salmonella in the birds' digestive systems. Foster Farms is also requiring poultry breeders who supply the company with chicks to certify that the birds are free of salmonella.
Foster Farms has increased sterilization efforts on surfaces, equipment and workers' clothing in its processing facilities. Officials admitted the company had lagged behind in its safety procedures inside the plants because it focused its energy on the farms, where the threat of salmonella contamination was greater.
Foster Farms has already reaped rewards from the new safety measures. The company is close to achieving a chief goal: reducing the instances of salmonella on its chicken parts from an industry average of 25% to 5%.
Foster said sampling shows the company is currently at 5.6%.
While the industry as a whole usually finds salmonella on 3.5% of its whole birds, Foster Farms’ chickens showed no evidence of salmonella, and Foster believes that the reduction in salmonella is sustainable and hopes that other poultry producers will follow suit.
Although some food safety advocates have called for reduction in antibiotics used in farming. Robert O'Connor, Foster Farms' chief veterinarian, defended their use in the early stages of their chickens’ lives to prevent a common gastrointestinal disease. "These antibiotics are used very sparingly," O'Connor said. "There has to be a reason for treating a flock. There has to be a disease that requires us to treat."
Both O'Connor and Foster had hoped that the worst has passed for the outbreak, largely because the company moved quickly to address shortcomings in its facilities. "Our goal was to get improvements in place as soon as possible," Foster said.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Foster Farms; Fresno Bee; Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press; David Pierson and Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times; Lynne Terry, The Oregonian; USDA