Foster Farms narrowly avoided a shutdown due to a nationwide Salmonella outbreak that was traced to three Valley plants by submitting a new course of action to the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding their sanitation practices.
Foster Farms submitted a corrective action plan for the three implicated facilities, one in Livingston and two in Fresno, which was approved by the USDA's Food and Safety Inspection Service. Several new safety controls have been implemented over the last two months and the company is committed to installing more processes during an enhanced inspection over the next 90 days.
"We started this process more than two months ago and this officially validates our process, we are not stopping here," said Ron Foster, president and chief executive officer of Foster Farms.
The Center for Disease Control found 278 cases of Salmonella Heidelberg in 17 states linked to Foster Farms brand chicken, most cases occurring in California. At least six cases were recorded in Stanislaus County according to the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency.
The outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg are resistant to multiple commonly prescribed antibiotics, according to the CDC.
"All of us at Foster Farms regret any illness associated with our products. We have worked relentlessly to address these issues and will continue to do so as we work to regain consumer trust and confidence in the Foster Farms brand. On behalf of everyone at Foster Farms, that is my commitment to you," said Foster in a press release issued late Thursday night.
Foster Farms received a notice of intended enforcement from the USDA District Manager Yudhbir Sharma in Alameda on Monday, requiring the company to address non-compliant regulations within 72 hours. According to the notice, Foster Farms Central Valley poultry facilities were not meeting FSIS sanitation regulations.
Under the Poultry Products Inspection Act, the FSIS has the authority to refuse to provide USDA inspectors to a facility that does not comply with their sanitation standards. Without USDA inspectors, business would be halted.
The USDA cited "findings of fecal matter on carcasses", "poor sanitary dressings", and "insanitary food contact surfaces."
"Your establishment has failed to implement adequate control measures to address the prevalence of Salmonella in your poultry products," Sharma said in the notice sent to Foster Farms.
FSIS conducted intensified Salmonella verification testing for three weeks in September at several facilities, including the Livingston plant and the two Fresno plants. Of the samples collected by the FSIS, 25 percent were contaminated with Salmonella. The results showed that one or more outbreak strains of Salmonella and one or more outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg were present in Foster Farms products.
The FSIS did recognize that the presence of the outbreak strain alone is not proof of contaminated product. It is this strain coupled with the illnesses that suggests that the establishment is not meeting sanitary standards.
The California Department of Public Health confirmed Foster Farms chicken is safe to eat and does not plan to issue a recall of any Foster Farms products.
"The CDPH has not requested Foster Farms to recall chickens because, with proper handling and preparation, this product is safe for consumption," said Dr. Chapman, director of the CDPH and state health officer.
Foster Farms said that more than 25 million people have safely consumed Foster Farms chicken since the ongoing outbreak of human illness caused by Salmonella Heidelberg, between March and September of this year. The company is implementing new practices at their Central Valley plants and they have sourced national food safety experts to approve these changes, according to a press release issued Wednesday.
Nationally, Foster Farms employs more than 12,000 people. The number of employees that could have been affected by the shutdown of the Central Valley plants in unclear.
Bacteria such as Salmonella are naturally occurring in poultry and only eradicated through cooking chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees as well maintaining clean surfaces and washing hands. Foster Farms and the FSIS stress that it is critical for consumers to utilize safe food practices when handling raw poultry.