We’ve been reporting for more than a year on Foster Farms' mysterious salmonella infections, which earlier this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture linked to three California processing plants. In July, the agency issued a Class I recall after more than 600 people had been sickened by the infection, and a 10-year-old boy was hospitalized – the lynch pin, it seems, to finally linking the epidemic to its point of origin.
What wasn’t disclosed to the public until now, however, was just how extensive the infections were, or the number of times that the factories were found in noncompliance during routine inspections.
All of that came to light last week, when the Natural Resources Defense Council published the results to its recent Freedom of Information Request to the USDA.
The 300 pages of noncompliance reports, or NRs, paint a disturbing picture of routine sanitary problems, which have ranged from cockroach infestations (for which one plant was shut down in January) to mold problems, fecal matter, stopped-up floor drains due to processing procedures and unsavory product quality issues.
But it is the number of actual violations that are mind-boggling: According to the NRDC, more than 200 violations were levied against two Foster Farms plants by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in relation to the salmonella Heidelberg strain. More than 150 occurred at its Livingston, Calif. plant alone. S. Heidelberg’s virulence has been linked to the fact that it is antibiotic resistant and therefore can’t be killed by Foster Farms’ standard antibiotic treatment methods.
The NDRC and more than 25 other organizations have called on Foster Farms to drop the antibiotic regimens, which they say is helping to fuel drug-resistant bacteria in processing plants, as well as spread them to consumers’ kitchens. Earlier this month, the NRDC also petitioned the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider an earlier finding that the Food and Drug Administration isn’t obligated to take an action concerning the use of antibiotics in meat.
“FDA has long approved the practice of adding antibiotics to animal feed, which the agency acknowledges contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten human health,” said NRDC in its appeal to the courts.
Foster Farms CEO Ron Foster has long defended his company’s use of antibiotics in chicken, saying it is necessary to ensure the animals’ health. The statements seem to contravene what organic chicken producers have found, which is that a healthy environment, not prophylaxis, is the key to healthy and safe meat products.
But while the NRs suggest that Foster Farms processing procedures may well have had something to do with the cause of the epidemic, it also raises questions about the inspection processes that allow plants to continue to operate when large-scale bacteria infections are present or being investigated. As the NRDC notes, “[The] good news is that these reports indicate that immediate corrective action is generally required whenever a violation is found and contaminated products must be re-washed or discarded.”
So much better for the company that does not lose valuable production time, as Foster Farms did when cockroaches were found on-site. But for the hundreds of sickened consumers, food production deadlines and speedy dispatch is of little consolation, especially if it may not keep a year-long epidemic from gaining ground.
Image credit: Sarah Macmillan
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.