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%.

Best defense is good offence? 574 sick, Foster Farms lawsuit blames exterminator for cockroaches

Foster Farms is suing Orkin LLC, charging the pest control company was to blame for cockroaches that resulted in a three-day shutdown of its Livingston poultry facility in January.

The lawsuit, filed late last month in Merced Superior Court, claims Orkin should pay damages for failing to fulfill a contract to control cockroaches at the processing plant. The U.S. Department of Agriculture suspended operations at the Foster Farms plant because roaches were found on four occasions.

cockroach.men.in.blackOrkin and a subsidiary, Orkin Services of California, are named as defendants in the lawsuit. Orkin filed a motion Wednesday seeking to move the case to the federal court in Fresno.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reportedly has tied 574 cases of salmonella illness to raw chicken from the Foster Farms plant in Livingston and two smaller plants in Fresno. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service notified Foster Farms last fall that the presence of cockroaches was a sign of unsanitary conditions at the plant.

Raw poultry: the legal history, public policy, and consumer behavior

In Feb., 2014, Melvin N. Kramer,
 of EHA Consulting Group, wrote a piece about the ongoing Salmonella outbreak linked to Foster Farms poultry.

It is reprinted here with permission.

 The CDC reported that as “of January 15, 2014, a total of 430 persons infected with seven outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg have been reported from 23 states and Puerto Rico.” (1) In response to the news, the popular media, the technical and professional public health and consumer publications, including the blogosphere, have weighed in with opinions.

Chicken_labelThe question is whether or not the poultry producer should have voluntary recalled the raw chicken, which based on epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback investigations conducted by local, state, and federal officials, indicated “that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken is the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections.”(2) This question is not only multi-faceted, but has a rich history, both from a public health, public policy, and legal perspective dating back to the early 1970s.

I feel in a somewhat unique position to write this paper since my superior at the New Jersey State Department of Health, Oscar J. Sussman, DVM, JD, MPH was involved. He influenced the American Public Health Association (APHA) to formally sue the United States Department of Agriculture for failure to warn the public that up to 50.8% of Federally Inspected poultry was positive for salmonella.(3) Sussman wanted the USDA to put a very simplistic warning on every retail package of poultry stating, “Caution. Improper cooking of this product may be hazardous to your health.”(4)

The warning was to counter the seal of inspection in which the USDA certifies that the poultry is “wholesome” because a pathogen such as salmonella is not wholesome unless and until the poultry is properly thermalized to an internal temperature of 165°F. This temperature will adequately kill all salmonella and other pathogens present.

The lawsuit was filed and adjudicated in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The issue of the litigation went in a slightly different direction challenging the Wholesome Meat Act and the Wholesome Poultry Products Act as contained in 21 U.S.C.S. § 601, et seq. and 21 U.S.C.S. § 41 et seq., respectively.

In the initial case, which was ultimately appealed and decided on December 19, 1974 by the United State Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the matter styled APHA v. Butz, the plaintiffs argued that the government’s official mark of inspection was misleading; therefore, the product was misbranded since the USDA failed to warn against the dangers of salmonella.(5)

chicken.thermAlthough the USDA tried to settle the case in exchange for consumer education, which they ultimately did, the case went on to the appellate court, which affirmed the lower trial court’s decision in favor of the government.(6)

What is relevant to the current debate with Foster Farms boils down to the definition of the term “adulterated”, defined in the statute as:

(1) if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health; but in case the substance is not an added substance, such article shall not be considered adulterated under this clause if the quantity of such substance in or on such article does not ordinarily render it injurious to health.(7)

The USDA’s position, which was the prevailing position per the lawsuit decision, was articulated in a letter from the USDA on August 18, 1971 and cited in the appellate opinion, which stated:

“the ‘American consumer knows that raw meat and poultry are not sterile and, if handled improperly, perhaps could cause illness’ In other words, American housewives and cooks normally are not ignorant or stupid and their methods of preparing and cooking of food do not ordinarily result in salmonellosis.”(8)

The Court’s opinion that salmonella in raw poultry is not an adulterant is the reason why Foster Farms did not conduct a voluntary recall nor was there a withdrawal of the USDA from the plant, which would in effect close the processing facility. Furthermore, the plant must be operating within the numerous USDA regulations or else there would have been significant negative consequences up to and including the withdrawal of inspection.

In contrast to the poultry producer, Costco’s El Camino Real store in South San Francisco, Calif., voluntarily recalled 9,043 units (approximately 39,755 lbs.) of rotisserie chicken products that may be contaminated with a strain of Salmonella Heidelberg, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

chicken.south.parkCostco recalled 8,730 “Kirkland Signature Foster Farms” rotisserie chickens and 313 total units of “Kirkland Farm” rotisserie chicken soup, rotisserie chicken leg quarters, and rotisserie chicken salad. The products were sold directly to consumers in a Costco located at 1600 El Camino Real, South San Francisco, Calif., between Sept. 11 and Sep. 23, 2013.(9) The initial recall was initiated on Oct. 12, 2013 due to concerns about a group of Salmonella Heidelberg illnesses that may be associated with the consumption of rotisserie chicken products prepared in and purchased at the Costco El Camino Real store.

On October 17, 2013 Costco’s El Camino Real store in San Francisco, Calif., voluntarily recalled an additional 14,093 units of rotisserie chicken products that may be contaminated with a strain of Salmonella, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced. This is in addition to the 9,043 units that were recalled on Oct. 12.

The products subject to recall were 13,455 “Kirkland Signature Foster Farms” rotisserie chickens and 638 total units of “Kirkland Farm” rotisserie chicken soup, rotisserie chicken leg quarters, and rotisserie chicken salad. The products were sold directly to consumers in a Costco located at 1600 El Camino Real, South San Francisco, Calif., between Sept. 24 and Oct. 15, 2013.(10) These recalls were appropriate and in the best interest of public health, since it was in a ready-to-eat product, which all consumers have a right to expect is pathogen free.

Conversely, Tyson Foods, Inc. a Sedalia, Mo., establishment, voluntarily recalled approximately 33,840 pounds of mechanically separated (raw) chicken products that may be contaminated with a Salmonella Heidelberg strain, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today (January 10, 2014).

The mechanically separated chicken products were produced on Oct. 11, 2013. The following products are subject to recall: 40-lb. cases, containing four, 10-lb. chubs of “TYSON MECHANICALLY SEPARATED CHICKEN.””(11) This product was not available to the consumer, and in fact, was for institutional customers (this was from a correctional facility).

Salmonella’s status as a possible adulterant has been litigated, resulting in courts not considered salmonella an adulterant. From a public health law perspective, unless Congress passes specific legislation and signed into law by the President naming salmonella as an adulterant, raw poultry with salmonella will continue to not be considered an adulterated and, therefore, not subject to involuntary or mandatory recall or plant shutdown.

FunkyChickenHiThe public policy facet of this debate I think is more interesting than the recalls themselves. As referenced earlier, the USDA settled the legal case in exchange for consumer education in the early 1970s. At that time, and to an extent to this date, all the USDA offered were public service spots on radio and television, particularly around holidays and other times with heavy consumer consumption of meat and poultry.

However, the USDA’s FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) also adopted mandatory Safe Handling Instructions (reproduced below), which are described in the Code of Federal Regulations, title 9, parts 317 and 381. In reality, I believe these mandatory Safe Handling Instructions gave credence to Dr. Sussman and the APHA’s position in the litigation. Furthermore, I believe consumer warnings would have potentially prevented untold illness and deaths from raw meat and poultry, if commenced decades earlier.

Safe Handling Instructions

This product was prepared from inspected and passed meat and/or poultry. Some food products may contain bacteria that could cause illness if the product is mishandled or cooked improperly. For your protection, follow these safe handling instructions.

  • Keep refrigerated or frozen. Thaw in refrigerator or microwave.
  • Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods. Wash working surfaces (including cutting boards), utensils, and hands after touching raw meat or poultry.
  • Cook thoroughly.
  • Keep hot foods hot. Refrigerate leftovers immediately or discard.(12)

The historic problem, and the rationale for the Safe Handling Instructions, is that consumers lacked appropriate handwashing practices and strategies to prevent cross-contamination between raw poultry and ready-to-eat foods as well as lacked adequate and verifiable thermalization of poultry to ensure thermal kill of salmonella and any other pathogens.

Therefore, the American consumer – whether in their kitchen or in a ready-to-eat processing plant, an institution such as a healthcare facility or university or retail food establishment – must pay acute attention to handwashing, not cross-contaminating raw and ready to eat food products, and thermalization of poultry to 165°F, verified with a calibrated thermometer.

chickenAlthough it would be ideal to have a guarantee that no pathogens would be present on raw poultry, or for that matter raw beef, seafood, shellfish, fruits, and vegetables, it is not a reality. Eradicating pathogens from raw food is likely not possible without getting into another thorny issue, which is irradiation of food.

If poultry was irradiated, there would be no salmonella in raw poultry! However, until the government passes law otherwise, it is incumbent on consumers to be vigilant and take precautions to ensure pathogen prevention.

(1) http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/heidelberg-10-13/index.html 

(2) Id.

(3) The exact statistic has varied in numerous studies as described in a June 30, 1966 article in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled Isolation of Salmonella from Poultry. Arthur Wilder. Isolation of Salmonella from Poultry. The New England of Journal of Medicine. Volume 274, Number 26. June 30, 1966.

(4) Claim USDA Meat Inspection Inadequate. AP Release. November 6, 1971.

(5) American Public Health Asso. v. Butz. 511 F.2d 331 U.S. App. (1974).

(6) Id.

(7) 21 U.S.C.S § 601

(8) 511 F.2d 334 (1974)

(9) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/recalls-and-public-health-alerts/recall-case-archive/archive/2013/recall-058-2013-release

(10) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/recalls-and-public-health-alerts/recall-case-archive/archive/2013/recall-058-2013-expanded

(11) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/recalls-and-public-health-alerts/recall-case-archive/archive/2014/recall-001-2014-release

(12) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/teach-others/download-materials/image-libraries/safe-handling-label-text/ct_index

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.

WTF? 524 now confirmed sick with Salmonella linked to Foster Farms chicken

This is why microbial food safety should be marketed so consumers have a choice.

As of April 7, 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports a total of 524 people have been infected with seven outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg from 25 states and Puerto Rico, since March 1, 2013.

Foster-Farms-Chicken-BreastCDC says it is working closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assess interventions implemented at Foster Farms facilities to prevent future illnesses.

But people keep getting sick. And what are these interventions?

The lack of information, the lack of a recall despite continued illnesses, is sorta mind-numbing.

Just cook it doesn’t cut it.

481 sick; dozens more stricken in Foster Farms salmonella outbreak

Lynne Terry of The Oregonian reports that while federal officials declared the salmonella outbreak tied to Foster Farms chicken over in mid-January at 430 cases, dozens of new illness have been confirmed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that officials in five states had tracked 51 new cases since Jan. 16: Arizona (3), California (44), Hawaii (1), Tennessee (1) and Utah (2).

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control said in the update that federal officials detected one of the outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg in raw chicken wings purchased at a pinto.explodingstore on Jan. 27. It did not name the store. A number of states, including Oregon, are participating in a federal program designed to track the development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria by buying meat in grocery stores and running tests. That program is how Oregon has tracked Foster Farms salmonella outbreaks for a decade.

In the update on this this current outbreak, the CDC said one of the strains was found in raw chicken from the home of an ill person. Officials do not know whether that chicken had been stored for a long time in the freezer.

Foster Farms has not recalled any of the suspect chicken, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not ask for one.

However USDA officials told The Oregonian on Monday that Foster Farms had reduced contamination at the three plants in California implicated in the outbreak. In January, the Foster-Farms-Chicken-BreastUSDA closed one of them, in Livingston, Calif., for more than two weeks over “egregious” unsanitary conditions traced to cockroaches.

When the plant reopened, Foster Farms adopted antimicrobial interventions to cut contamination. The officials said those interventions are working, with the three plants averaging far less than 25 percent contamination, an industry average for salmonella on raw chicken parts.

“Foster Farms is performing far better than the industry average,” an official said.

The Pinto defense.

430 sick from Salmonella; Foster Farms reopens Calif. plant

After sickening at least 430 people with Salmonella over several months and not being shut down, but then having a plant shut down because of cockroaches in central California, Foster Farms resumed operations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last Thursday that the outbreak, which started in March last year, was Foster-Farms-Chicken-Breastover.

The USDA threatened to shut the three plants in October over the outbreak. According to Lynne Terry of The Oregonian, who has followed the story since the beginning, when Foster Farms promised to enact tougher food safety procedures, the agency backed down.

Foster Farms issued soundbites instead of data on Wednesday, saying it has ensured that the “most effective treatment protocols” are in place at Livingston plant. It did not release any details about what it’s done to clean up the facility. 

Everyone can go back to sleep; Foster Farms to reopen

Despite sickening 416 people with Salmonella over several months, Foster Farms reopened Saturday morning after a two-day closure because of roach infestation.

“Cockroaches are never good; but neither are 416 sick people.”

If only consumers had some way of choosing at retail, based on solid microbial sampling Foster-Farms-Chicken-Breastand food safety records, which chicken they would want to buy.

Sorry, no one will market food safety at retail; so no choice.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service cleared the way for the plant in Livingston to reopen after the poultry producer submitted a mitigation plan.

According to Lynne Terry of The Oregonian, neither USDA nor Foster Farms offered any details about what the company had done to fix the cockroach infestation. 

416 sick from Salmonella: USDA closes Foster Farms plant over roach infestation

With 416 sick from Salmonella that has been going on for months, the feds finally decided to close a Foster Farms plant in California.

For cockroaches.

I told Beth Weise of USA Today, “It’s probably that USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) was getting bad PR so it needed a reason to shut them down. Cockroaches are never FunkyChickenHigood; but neither are 416 sick people.”

Finding roaches in a processing plant isn’t unexpected, said International Association for Food Protection president, Rutgers University food extension guru and beard aficionado Donald Schaffner, “The key question is how many other plants have this frequency of roach noncompliance and were not shut down?”

Federal inspectors on Wednesday suspended processing at a poultry plant in California found to have been infested with cockroaches four times over the last five months.

The on-going outbreak has sickened a total of 416 people in 23 states according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

However according to the letter sent to Foster Farms CEO Ron Foster on Wednesday, USDA Food Safety Inspection Service staff documented four cases of live cockroach contamination in the plant, on Sept. 14, Nov. 4, Dec. 28 and finally on Jan. 7. The letter was first reported by Lynne Terry of The Oregonian newspaper.

“These recent findings of egregious insanitary conditions related to a cockroach infestation in your facility indicate that your establishment is not being operated and maintained in sanitary condition,” the letter said.

In a statement provided by spokeswoman Karmina Zafiro, Foster Farms said it was first notified of the infestations on Jan. 8 and “closed the Livingston facility immediately for sanitization and treatment.”

No other Foster Farms facilities were affected, according to the statement. “No products are affected. Product production has been transferred to the company’s other facilities.”

Seattle food safety lawyer Bill Marler found it odd that USDA “has the power to shut a plant down when they found cockroaches but doesn’t have the power to shut them down when they poison hundreds of people with antibiotic-resistant salmonella.”

317 sick in Foster Farms Salmonella outbreak; just cook it still doesn’t cut it; skating, hockey, Thanksgiving turkey

Amy, Sorenne and I began eight weeks of skating lessons at the local arena Satuday (I suck after seven years of no ice, thank you Kansas), started cooking the Canadian Thanksgiving feast at 3 a.m Sunday, and have had hockey on in the background since 4 a.m.

I try to be super-extra careful when cooking a big bird because of the potential for cross-contamination, and the potential of sickening a bunch therm.turkey.oct.13of what-would-become former friends.

But in some cases, extra care is not enough.

As the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak linked to Foster Farms hits 317 sick, Costco has ordered a recall of nearly 40,000 pounds of rotisserie chickens after one tested positive for Salmonella on Friday.

That’s a cooked chicken. To paraphrase Bill Marler, if Costco can’t cook the poop out of a bird, why are consumers expected to?

Still, company types, many government types and other types, insist all will be well if the chicken is just cooked properly.

This is a terrible message, and not scientifically accurate.

Chapman at least got a few correct points in when he told Live Science cross-contamination can happen at any point in the cooking and handling process, starting at the grocery store, don’t wash the bird, and use a damn thermometer.

(I gave one to an IT friend here for the Thanksgiving food orgy.)

After threatening Monday to close three Foster Farms processing plants, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed on Thursday to allow the plants to continue operating with advanced, super-secret safety procedures.

Neither the company nor USDA will say what these procedures are. Doesn’t build confidence.

Which would be an additional reason the list of retailers recalling Fosters products is growing.

Lynne Terry of the Oregonian writes that Costco’s El Camino Real store in San Francisco, Calif., is pulling and products over Salmonella contamination. The recall includes nearly 8,800 Kirkland Signature Foster Farms rotisserie chickens and more than 310 units of Kirkland Farm rotisserie chicken soup, rotisserie chicken leg quarters and rotisserie chicken salad.

The products were sold to Costco customers at the El Camino Real store between Sept. 11 and Sept. 23, the notice said. The chickens were processed at three Foster Farms plants in central California.

Fred Meyer and QFC stores have withdrawn chicken from the same plants. They were sold under the brand names of Simple Truth Organic and Kroger Value. The voluntary withdrawal also includes deli chicken and rotisserie chickens.

Melinda Merrill, Fred Meyer spokeswoman, said the stores are still selling the Foster Farms labeled poultry that came from a plant that’s not been implicated in the outbreak.

This outbreak differs in that the variety of salmonella is especially virulent.

There are seven strains of salmonella Heidelberg involved in the outbreak. Several of them are antibiotic-resistant and “one of the strains that we’ve tested is resistant to seven antibiotics,” said Christopher Braden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention division of foodborne diseases.

Of the people infected, 42% have been hospitalized — an unusually high percentage, according to the CDC.

“That’s about twice what we would normally see for a salmonella outbreak,” Braden said. “We think that’s at least in part due to the fact that a number of these strains have resistance to one or more antibiotics.”

Thirteen percent of those sickened have salmonella septicemia, a serious, life-threatening, whole-body inflammation, Braden said. Normal for salmonella would be “just a few percent,” he said.

In a statement, Foster Farms CEO Ron Foster said “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.”

Those comments do not bolster consumer confidence.

If you’ve got a good food safety system, brag about it. Because some companies are better.