Risk comparisons are risky with 574 sick; Foster Farms says it steps up food safety but no public data to verify

Foster Farms poultry producers announced Monday that they’ve dramatically lowered levels of salmonella in chicken parts — and invested $75 million to do it — even as the firm battles a food poisoning outbreak that has sickened nearly 600 people in more than a year.

Foster-Farms-Chicken-BreastMost recent 10-week data shared with the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that salmonella levels in the firm’s chicken parts had dropped to 2 percent — far below the industry benchmark of 25 percent, Foster Farms officials said.

The safety efforts, however, have not stopped what officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say is an ongoing outbreak of salmonella poisoning that has sickened at least 574 people since March 2013. Experts with the CDC say the outbreak includes seven strains of drug-resistant salmonella Heidelberg reported in 27 states and Puerto Rico. The cases continue to occur in freshly purchased poultry.

Nearly 40 percent of those sickened have been hospitalized and 13 percent have developed blood infections as a result of their illnesses, a rate nearly three times the typical rate of such serious side effects.

Such cases are regrettable, said Ira Brill, a spokesman for Foster Farms. But he suggested that the cases are a tiny fraction of the 160 million people who eat chicken every day and that the active outbreak should wane very soon.

“The number of illnesses should decline,” Brill said.

In a ridiculous delay of risk communication that should engender no trust, the company’s announcement Monday was its first public statement since October, when the federal government threatened to close Foster Farms plants in the Central Valley, where unemployment rates hover near 20%.