An expanding salmonella outbreak tied to Foster Farms chicken involves multiple antibiotic resistant strains and a very high hospitalization rate of 42 percent, according to a food safety expert.
"There are seven strains involved in this outbreak,"said Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington D.C., who was briefed by Christopher Braden, director of the division of foodborne illness at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's double the normal hospitalization rate for salmonella.
So far an estimated 278 people in 18 states have been sickened. The outbreak has been linked to chicken produced by Foster Farms at three California plants, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced today. Most of the chicken was sold in California, Oregon and Washington, and most of the illnesses have occurred in California, the USDA says.
The outbreak is so bad that the CDC has brought staff back from the furlough to work on it. (They've had just one -- one -- poor soul tracking outbreaks since Congress' snit fit.)
"Consumers should know that the frontline antibiotics used to treat salmonella are fully effective in treating the illness," a Foster Farms spokeswoman assured USA Today. However, when you are dealing with super-virulent, antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella such as this one, that means commonly used antibiotics don't always work, and stronger antibiotics with potentially scary side effects (you know, like liver failure) must be used instead.
Still, no recall has been announced and the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service "is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period," the agency says in a public health alert. Consumers can identify products that came from the three plants by looking for these packaging codes: P6137, P6137A and P7632. Or, they can just throw out all of their Foster Farms chicken so they don't risk vomiting to the point of needing intravenous fluids.
The agency adds: "The investigation is ongoing and FSIS is prepared to take additional actions or expand the investigation based on new evidence." In other words, a recall is looming. Did we mention you should dispose of any and all Foster Farms chicken in your fridge?
In its own press release, Foster Farms insists its "products are safe to consume if properly handled and fully cooked" and "food safety is Foster Farms' highest priority." (An outbreak of the same strain of salmonella -- Salmonella Heidelberg -- was linked to Foster Farms chicken in 2012 in Oregon and Washington. That outbreak sickened 134 people in 13 states.)
"We deeply regret any foodborne illness that may be associated with any of our products. Food safety is at the very heart of our business. It is a continuous process of improvement," said Foster Farms President Ron Foster. "In addition to collaborating with FSIS and CDC, the company has retained national experts in epidemiology and food safety technology to assess current practices and identify opportunities for further improvement."
Then their company vet chimes in: "Salmonella is naturally occurring in poultry and can be fully eradicated if raw product is properly handled and fully cooked," said Dr. Robert O'Connor, the company's food safety chief and head veterinarian.
So, basically, it's not the chicken farmers' fault that their chicken is a virtual nuclear bomb of bacteria -- it's up to the consumer to eradicate the pathogens so their kids don't end up in the hospital.
The sky is falling.