More WTF? 574 now confirmed sick with Salmonella linked to Foster Farms chicken; 50 new cases in last month in year-long outbreak

Should consumers eat Foster Farms chicken? What’s the take-home message?

Food safety ain’t simple.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported today that as of May 22, 2014, a total of 574 individuals infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg have been reported from 27 states and Puerto Rico since March 1, 2013. Most of the ill persons (77%) have been reported from California. Since the last update on April 9, 2014, a total of 50 new ill persons have been reported from 8 states.

borat.chickenAmong 478 persons with available information, 178 (37%) reported being hospitalized. Thirteen percent of ill persons have developed blood infections as a result of their illness. Typically, approximately 5% of persons ill with Salmonella infections develop blood infections. No deaths have been reported.

That was the context of a chat I had with Jonel Aleccia of NBC News at 7 a.m. (reporters, students, others, have no trouble finding me; university administrators seem baffled while touting global initiatives).

Her basic question was, since the company and government have had over a year to get this under control and can’t, should consumers stop buying chicken from Foster Farms?

“It is ridiculous that this has been going on for a year,” Powell told NBC News. “This is a virulent pathogen that they can’t seem to get rid of.”

Consumers should vote with their wallets and patronize poultry producers with good track records free of reports of foodborne illness.

But I know that answer has huge limitations. As does every other answer to that seemingly basic question.

Salmonella is out there, and it needs to be reduced. That this outbreak continues, and that 37 per cent of victims have been hospitalized, tells me there are some large loads going in or multiplying in those Foster Farm plants.

The company has pulled out the usual lines like, cook poultry, and people get sick more in the summer because they BBQ more.

Foster-Farms-Chicken-BreastI BBQed year round in the Canadian snow.

The beef folks used to use this line, until it was pointed out that maybe more people get sick in the heat of summer months because the microbial loads on the farm and in the slaughterhouse are larger, and require more vigilant controls.

Just cook it doesn’t cut it; fails to account for cross-contamination.

Consumers have no idea what the safety records are of various producers because most of us just want to go shopping and make dinner. Foster Farms keeps saying things like, “With each set of sampling, Foster Farms has demonstrated a significant improvement in Salmonella control.”

That’s fabulous. Make the data public so others can assess its veracity.

Does Foster Farms pack under other names or generics? How would a consumer know? Organic and local isn’t safer, and can be worse regarding Salmonella.

But back to that original question: should consumers stop buying Foster Farms chicken?

The only way anyone can answer that question is full public access to data, and to market microbial food safety at retail: some companies are better, they should brag about it, based on real data.

Then consumers can choose.