Environmental and food safety advocates are asking why the company, which is suffering from one of the longest outbreaks of salmonella in recent history, has not been ordered by health officials to close three of its plants during the investigation. The outbreak was first detected in July of this year, although it is believed to have begun in March. As of last week, 317 people had fallen ill, and almost half have required hospitalization.
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman, the agency has had a difficult time tracing the contamination to a specific product or production time, other than the fact that they appear to come from three plants in Fresno and Livingston, California.
USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has also been able to trace the contamination to three product code numbers: P6137, P6137A and P7632. The code numbers identify the packages that are put out on the shelves, and customers can check the products they bought by looking for those numbers.
Neither Foster Farms nor the USDA are able to answer how a specific drug-resistant strain of salmonella called salmonella Heidelberg ended up contaminating so many packages of chicken potentially from more than one plant, why it is still ongoing, or why this did not constitute a demand for a plant shutdown.
But the answers to some of these questions may not be that hard to find.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysis of salmonella outbreaks in 2012, salmonella Heidelberg outbreaks (which have been increasing in drug resistance) are becoming more common, and have frequently been the source of infections linked with chicken and turkey.
And unfortunately, Foster Farms is no stranger to CDC studies. The Northwest company has been struggling with this problem for some years. According to the CDC report, Foster Farms chicken was found to be infected with the Heidelberg strain in 2004 and again in 2012. The 2012 outbreak, which is still being tracked, led the CDC to investigate the problem. What they found was that the problem wasn’t necessarily with Foster Farms or its production system, but with the oversight the production system receives in addressing a rising presence of a very virulent strain of salmonella.
“The historical significance of this pattern in the Pacific Northwest suggests the need for ongoing surveillance and intervention to prevent additional illnesses,” says the report, noting that anti-microbial resistance in salmonella strains has been increasing, not decreasing.
The USDA knew it needed to address this problem urgently, says the report, so in December 2012, the “USDA-FSIS announced that all establishments producing not-ready-to-eat ground or comminuted poultry products, including Foster Farms, will be required to reassess their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plans.”
But was the USDA-FSIS monitoring the implementation of that plan? Was the agency's own “hazard analysis” plan upgraded to meet the increased need? And if it was, how did the USDA-FSIS miss the ongoing, and apparently rampant, presence of salmonella Heidelberg in packaged products?
On October 7, 2013, after issuing a health alert, the USDA apparently told Foster Farms that it intended to “withhold the marks of inspection and suspend the assignment of inspectors at the three facilities in California unless the firm submitted plans to prevent the persistent recurrence of salmonella contamination.” In plain speak, USDA would close down the plants unless Foster Farms submitted plans as to how it would deal with the outbreaks.
Is this the specified Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plan that the USDA said it would require back in December? And if so, why did it take so long for this policy to be put in place?
Many more questions remain unanswered. Some are being investigated through the diligent effort by the press, who, during government furloughs, became the sleuths to solve the mystery. Some have found that research and detection of the most recent outbreaks were hampered by the USDA-FSIS and CDC’s allocation of manpower and facilities during the current shutdown. One of the CDC and USDA’s most important resources apparently, is the PulseNet Network, which was offline at the start of the shutdown. Another is adequate staffing of inspectors.
And, there has been another wrinkle to this story since the outbreak first began: Costco management in California are attempting to determine how a batch of fully cooked rotisserie chicken that was cooked in its El Camino Real (San Francisco) store could have become infected with salmonella Heidelberg last week. More than 8,000 rotisserie chickens had to be recalled under the Kirkland brand. Costco staff insists the poultry was “well cooked,” and therefore not susceptible to carrying salmonella. According to the CDC, salmonella is usually eliminated by thoroughly cooking the meat at 165 F or higher.
Two of the country’s largest suppliers now face substantial losses from recalls as they try to cap a problem that has been helped at the very least, by insufficient monitoring. And the worst part is that there is no way to know yet if the outbreak is entirely over.
Image #2 courtesy of Wikimedia user Coolcaesar