Updated, Jan. 14, 4:20 p.m.: Foster Farms says it has “voluntarily and temporarily” closed its Livingston, Calif. chicken-processing plant after it was shut down by the USDA last Wednesday and then reopened Saturday. The company said in a statement that it is “exercising vigilance” and dedicating additional time to make sure its cockroach cleanup plan is implemented.

Tyson Foods is recalling 34,000 pounds of chicken that may be contaminated with salmonella, according to the New York Times. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the chicken was shipped nationwide, not set for retail sale, but for “institutional use.” It has been linked to seven illnesses in a Tennessee correctional facility, including two hospitalizations.

Meanwhile, in other gross chicken news, last Wednesday the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service shut down one of the three Foster Farms chicken-processing plants implicated in a months-long salmonella outbreak, due to a cockroach infestation. But by Saturday, the plant was allowed to open again.

The USDA suspended operations at the Livingston, Calif. plant because of what it called “egregious” unsanitary conditions, according to the Portland Oregonian
]The five-page suspension notice, sent by certified mail to Foster Farms President Ron Foster on January 8, said the FSIS was pulling its inspectors from the plant due to “an infestation of live cockroaches in and around your production areas, that created unsanitary conditions, and demonstrate that your firm failed to maintain an effective pest control program and other sanitary controls… ” The letter states that it was the fifth time inspectors had found cockroaches at the plant since August “on multiple days in multiple locations.” 

The letter explains that cockroaches can harbor bacteria and other “disease-causing pathogens.”

On Wednesday, cockroaches were observed at a sink across from a processing line, with “exposed product” on the slaughterhouse floor, according to the letter. The day before, live cockroaches were seen on a plastic tub that came into contact with chicken. Inspectors also cited the plant for noncompliance on December 28, November 4 and September 14 after roaches were observed during production.

“Poorly maintained facilities and equipment that are not maintained to prevent entrance of pests, such as cockroaches, rats and flies, can and do harbor food borne pathogens, which can then multiply and be dispersed throughout the food processing environment, increasing the chances of product contamination rendering the product unsafe,” the shut-down notice said.

It was a big step for the FSIS, which until now has bent over backwards to give Foster Farms a chance to clean up its act, despite an ongoing virulent salmonella outbreak linked to its chicken and other chicken processed at its plants, and another one last year. The nationwide outbreak has sickened at least 400 people in 23 states and Puerto Rico since March; almost half have ended up hospitalized due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains.

The outbreak was traced to the Livingston plant and two others in Fresno. In early October, the FSIS threatened to close all three facilities, but backed off when Foster Farms promised to institute new food-safety controls. The FSIS does not have the authority to force a recall of salmonella-tainted chicken, and Foster Farms has not issued a voluntary recall, so the chicken has remained on the market.

In October, the FSIS said it would increase its oversight of the plants for 90 days.

Foster Farms said in an earlier statement that it has developed “new, multi-step processes for salmonella control.” Chicken parts have a contamination rate of about 25 percent.

But this latest move by the FSIS was apparently just a little slap on the wing, as Foster Farms was allowed to re-open the Livingston plant three days later with no explanation from the company or the FSIS about what steps had been taken to address the “egregious” cockroach problem.

As we've said before: Until the Feds get some teeth or grow some balls, eat chicken at your own risk. Tofurkey tacos, anyone?

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