Despite an ongoing multistate outbreak, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service says it won't shut down Foster Farms' chicken plants in California that have been linked to virulent salmonella Heidelberg infections that have sickened nearly 500 people (and likely more like 14,000) in 20 states and Puerto Rico.
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.
Foster Farms is refusing to recall their chicken voluntarily, and the FSIS would have to take the company to court to force a recall. The only option left to the federal agency is to withdraw their inspectors from the three plants, effectively shuttering them.
(In other words, Foster Farms are being totallus dickus, to use the legal term.)
Last Monday the FSIS gave Foster Farms until Thursday to explain how they were going to fix the problem, CBS News reports. Apparently the feds were satisfied by the company's response, announcing on Thursday evening that they would back off and allow the plants to continue operating despite more illnesses being reported, according to the Portland Oregonian.
"No normal human being could understand what the rationale is for this meat still being on the market, because there is no rationale," says Seattle-based food-safety attorney Bill Marler, who is suing Foster Farms on behalf of a salmonella victim in Florida. "The Food Safety Inspection Services is supposed to be a regulatory public health entity. It shouldn't be trying to figure out how to make the meat industry happy. Will there be a recall when the number of ill has doubled, or will we await deaths?"
In a letter to Foster Farms sent last week, the USDA said the unsanitary conditions at the facilities "could pose a serious ongoing threat to public health." Yudhbir Sharma of USDA's Alameda district office also said in the letter that Foster Farms has failed to demonstrate that it has adequate controls in place to address the salmonella issue. He said that in one of the facilities, 25 percent of the samples taken by USDA inspectors tested positive for salmonella.
The letter went on to say that before 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."
However, last Thursday, USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee said: "Foster Farms has submitted and implemented immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations."
The first illnesses in the outbreak were reported in March and the outbreak has had a high rate of hospitalizations. The Centers for Disease Control said 42 percent of victims have been hospitalized, about double the normal rate, and the strain is resistant to many antibiotics. Thirteen percent of those sickened have salmonella septicemia, a serious, life-threatening, whole-body inflammation.
"Foster Farms is dedicated to resolving any concerns by the USDA," Foster Farms President Ron Foster said last Wednesday. The company claims that salmonella is "naturally occurring" and that the onus is on the consumer to properly cook the chicken and sanitize their kitchens to avoid infection. "The alert that regulators issued based on illnesses over the past seven months emphasizes the need to fully cook and properly handle raw poultry," Foster says. "Our facilities have always met and exceeded USDA standards. USDA continues to inspect and approve our chicken products as safe to consume."
But do feel free to call Foster Farms' Consumer Affairs team at 800-338-8051 if you have any "questions."
"There's nothing natural about chicken shit on your meat," Marler says, pointing out that FSIS needs to reclassify salmonella as an "adulterant," as they did in 2001 with E. coli, in order to have the legal authority to force a recall.
"They should be recalling this and shutting down these Foster Farms plants that have been pumping out antibiotic-resistant salmonella for over a year," Marler told Squid Ink. "There's more salmonella in the system than people can cook out, and it's antibiotic-resistant. That's why people are getting sick. It's not because they're stupid."
According to the CDC, the most recent illnesses began two weeks ago, and the outbreak is ongoing. The majority of illnesses (77%) have been in California.
The CDC said the illnesses appear to be linked to another Foster Farms salmonella outbreak last year and earlier this year, when 134 people in 13 states were sickened with one of the same strains that has made people ill in the current outbreak.
"FSIS has some good people, but the agency in total is captured by the industry it's supposed to regulate," Marler says. "Every day the inspectors deal with pressure at the plants, the regulators deal with pressure from senators from farm states and meat industry lobbyists, and consumer voices are incredibly minimized. So you've got this situation where any rational person looking at the regulatory scope of salmonella in meat would say this is just crazy. When government does crap like this, even progressives who believe in government say, 'What the fuck?'"
While Foster Farms thumbs its nose at lawsuits and bad publicity, some companies that carry its product are doing their own recalls. A Costco in San Francisco is recalling its rotisserie chickens. Kroger is recalling Foster Farms chicken from Food 4 Less stores, and Ralphs has begun contacting customers (using its rewards card program) who may have purchased tainted chicken and offering a full refund.
Go ahead and stand firm, Foster Farms -- chicken shit in all of its forms seems to be a key part of your business practices.