Salmonella strain prompts chicken recall

Costco wholesale stores have joined grocery chain Kroger Co. in recalling Foster Farms’ chicken products from its shelves.

The recall involves nearly 40,000 pounds of chicken sold on the west coast that has been linked to a 20-state outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg contamination. So far, the outbreak has caused at least 317 illnesses.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced the recall Oct. 12.

USDA inspectors found salmonella rates greater than 24 percent on chicken-product samples taken at three Foster Farms plants.

Chickens line up to feed a the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign poultry farm.  The farm houses approximately 7,000 chickens used for egg production and ovary cancer research.

Photo by Steve Matzker/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Chickens line up to feed a the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign poultry farm. The farm houses approximately 7,000 chickens used for egg production and ovary cancer research.

Despite the government shutdown, Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors are monitoring Foster Farms’ California operations. However, the agency has neither issued a nationwide recall, nor closed any particular Foster Farms plants.

“We would not shut a plant down just because they didn’t meet [the standard], but if there was other evidence of insanitary conditions similar to what is happening now at Foster Farms,” said Daniel Engeljohn, USDA’s assistant administrator for Food Safety and Inspection Service field operations, in an interview with Meatingplace.com. “Although there isn’t a performance standard yet for raw chicken parts (the standard applies only to whole chicken carcasses), based on their salmonella rate on parts we took an enforcement action to tell them that if they didn’t offer effective corrective action within 72 hours we would suspend inspection.”

USDA's salmonella contamination performance standard of 7.5 percent applies only to raw whole chicken carcasses and not raw chicken parts. Furthermore, Salmonella-positive tests do not automatically trigger recalls because proper preparation and cooking are seen as successful ways of eliminating Salmonella in chicken.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service first issued a public health alert on Oct. 7.

Foster Farms issued a statement on Oct. 10 indicating that it was cooperating fully with safety officials.

“We started this process [of improving controls] more than two months ago,” said Ron Foster, president and chief executive officer of Foster Farms, in the statement.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service has been reviewing Foster Farms since July, but has been unable to link the company’s products directly to the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak that started earlier this year.

“It is important to know the enforcement actions taken by FSIS are substantive,” said Engeljohn. “People want a product recall, but we determined the production process was such that it could be significantly improved, but we did not find that it was so out of control that any product produced would be adulterated.

“Although there is a high illness rate and a very high hospitalization rate – so there is something unusual happening – and that requires there to be more study and more evaluation. But in the immediate time, we can take action to force the establishment to substantively improve their operations.”

Foster Farms submitted a plan on how to correct plant deficiencies to food safety officials last week. The company did so only after the USDA threatened to pull its inspectors from Foster Farms facilities, a move that would have effectively shut down all operations at those facilities.

Based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the strain of Salmonella Heidelberg has a 42 percent hospitalization rate. About three out of every four cases are located in California.

Salmonella Heidelberg has also proven to be resistant to most antibiotics, making it extremely difficult to treat.

Last week, Kroger Co. announced that it will remove Foster Farms fresh chicken from several of its stores, including: Fred Meyer, Fry's, King Soopers/City Market, Ralphs, Food 4 Less on the west coast, Smith's in southern Nevada and New Mexico, and QFC facilities.

Chickens at the University of Illinois poultry farm on March 7, 2013 at Urbana-Champaign.

Photo by Steve Matzker/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Chickens at the University of Illinois poultry farm on March 7, 2013 at Urbana-Champaign.

The Costco recall is linked to rotisserie chicken products prepared in and purchased from wholesale stores.

As reported in Midwest Center’s “Cracks in the System” series, Heidelberg is the fifth-most common Salmonella serotype associated with foodborne illness. It is also the second-most frequently associated serotype with human health issues and poultry, according to food safety reports.

Recently, Salmonella Heidelberg has caused other poultry recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks.

In March of 2013, about 130 illnesses in 13 states were linked to Heidelberg in chicken meat.

Heidelberg is also found in shelled eggs.

Current Food and Drug Administration guidelines are designed to limited Salmonella Enteritidis and do not specifically address Heidelberg.