After 16 months and more than 600 very sick people, Foster Farms is finally issuing a recall for its chicken. Sort of.
After some intense wrangling with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foster Farms has agreed to recall some chicken produced for just three days in March. You are correct – it is now July.
Can we get a big round of applause for Foster Farms? Anyone? Anyone?
The feds were finally able to force Foster Farms’ hand because this is the first time they have been able to forge a definitive link between Foster Farms chicken and an illness, the USDA said in a statement. The recall stems from a sick 10-year-old in California, who was hospitalized. The patient's family bought some Foster Farms boneless chicken breasts on March 16 and the kid ate it on April 29, getting very sick May 5.
The USDA learned of the illness on June 23, recovering the leftover chicken for testing. Lab tests confirmed a molecular match between the salmonella on the foul fowl and strains infecting the patient.
“FSIS was notified on June 23rd of the illness and took immediate steps to collect the product for testing and announced the recall as soon as a direct link was confirmed,” a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service spokesman said in a written statement. “Combating Salmonella remains a top priority for FSIS and we continue to take all steps within our authority to reduce foodborne illness.” The recalled chicken was produced by Foster Farms at three plants in central California.
The outbreak started in March 2013 and has sickened hundreds, if not thousands, in 29 states and Puerto Rico. (The CDC estimates that for every one case of salmonella that is detected, another 29 cases go undetected. Those numbers mean Foster Farms chicken may have made more than 17,000 people ill.)
The only other recall in the outbreak came last year from Costco, which pulled cooked Foster Farms rotisserie chicken from one of its stores in Northern California. In one of the oddities of food-safety law, salmonella is banned on ready-to-eat food but allowed on raw poultry as a “naturally occurring” substance.
The lack of a voluntary recall by the company has prompted the introduction of a bill in the U.S. House that would force one in the future during a similar outbreak.
The USDA currently lacks mandatory recall authority for salmonella (but has it for E. coli). It can politely ask a company to pull products that are making people sick, and the company can politely tell the agency to get bent, which has been the winning strategy with Foster Farms thus far. And despite assurances that it has cleaned up its act, a Foster Farms plant in Livingston was briefly shut down by the USDA in January due to an infestation of cockroaches and other "egregious" unsanitary conditions.
And, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, released July 4, Foster Farms chicken is continuing to sicken consumers at a rate of about one a day. Recent illnesses have been from freshly produced chicken, not meat left for months in the back of a freezer, according to the CDC.
California alone has had at least 468 cases since the outbreak began — about 77% of the total.
"Epidemiologic, laboratory and traceback investigations conducted by local, state and federal officials indicate that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken is the likely source of this outbreak of salmonella Heidelberg infections," the CDC said April 9. "La la la," said Foster Farms.
Now, even with the sick-kid smoking gun, Foster Farms fought the USDA over the extent of the recall. In the end, the company agreed to only pull chicken produced March 8, 10 and 11 at the three plants. The products subject to recall bear the establishment numbers “P6137,” P6137A” and “P7632” inside the USDA mark of inspection. (Products were sold under the Foster Farms and private label brand names, so make sure you check those numbers.) The products have a “Use or Freeze By” date range of March 21 through March 29, 2014. A breathtakingly underwhelming move by the company, since chances are any chicken produced back in March is long gone. Click here for the full list of recalled products (it includes breasts, thighs, drumsticks, wings and tenders).
The recall follows Foster Farms' 75th anniversary celebrations last month. The company says it has spent $75 million to reduce salmonella contamination. In a non-apology apology on their website addressing the recall, Foster Farms says: "Experts agree that even with very low levels of incidence, the poultry industry cannot completely eliminate the risk of illness. All raw chicken must be properly handled to avoid cross contamination and fully cooked to 165 degrees to ensure safety. The company now leads the industry in reducing incidence levels of Salmonella."
The outbreak involves strains of Salmonella Heidelberg that are resistant to commonly prescribed antibiotics. Nearly 40% of patients in this outbreak have been hospitalized, about double the average rate for salmonella. Thirteen percent have developed blood infections, almost three times the average rate for salmonella infections.
Even lawmakers are fed up with Foster Farms. A House bill introduced last month by U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) would require the USDA to recall meat, poultry or egg products contaminated with bacteria resistant to two or more critically important antibiotics and items tainted with pathogens that cause serious illness or death.
The bill would give the USDA mandatory recall authority for meat, poultry and eggs contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, salmonella, campylobacter and other pathogens.
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“We need to make sure that USDA and the other agencies have the tools and the mandate to move rapidly on behalf of public health,” DeLauro said.
'Merica! Where you are free to sell dirty chicken that makes people deathly ill.