Lack of evidence stopped federal recall request in 2013 Salmonella outbreak

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Photo by Steve Matzker/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

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

ARLINGTON, Va. — An Office of Public Health official said the Food Safety and Inspection Service was not able to link a specific Foster Farms product or production method directly to the Salmonella strain linked to a multi-state outbreak.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food safety sector lacked the appropriate evidence, said David Goldman, assistant administrator for the Office of Public Health Science.

Late last year, Costco and Kroger grocery stores recalled more than 40,000 pounds of Foster Farms chicken sold on the west coast that was believed to have prompted a 23-state outbreak of Salmonella and sickened more than 400 people.

Goldman spoke during a 2014 Ag Outlook Forum panel on outbreak containment and emergency response. The USDA-sponsored event spanned two days and included panels and discussions on food safety, climate change and diversity.

It concluded Friday.

Goldman said the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service did issue four Notices of Intended Enforcement to Foster Farms, which would have effectively closed the plant. This type of warning from the agency is a written letter to a meat producer informing the producer that the agency plans to withhold the inspection mark on meat if the company does not address problems.

Federal officials can request a recall, but cannot force a recall. Foster Farms did not recall any of its own product during the outbreak.

One Foster Farms plant is still affected by a Notice of Intended Enforcement. Federal officials continues to have an incident investigation team working with Foster Farms, said Goldman.

While the safety agency was not able to make a direct link to Foster Farms chicken and the 2013 Salmonella outbreak, Matt Wise — team leader for the U.S. Public Health Service outbreak prevention team — said he feels the investigation was a success.

He said Foster Farms is altering its production methods and the industry in having a serious conversation about the issue as a result of the outbreak.

“An outbreak represents a failure in the system,” said David Goldman, assistant administrator for the Office of Public Health.

He said there are procedures in place and multiple agencies working to ensure a safe food supply. An outbreak occurs when something goes wrong along the path.

“We depend on diligent work of state and local health departments,” said Goldman regarding identifying an outbreak and its possible source.

Wise, and also Alicia Cronquist — a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment representative — provided summaries of two recent foodborne illness outbreaks.

Confirming a foodborne illness outbreak can take time.

And once it is identified, the source product may not be.

Both Wise and Cronquist said it can be two to four weeks after a food item is consumed before it is confirmed the affected person is part of an outbreak. They also said it can take time even after an outbreak is identified before the source is found or illnesses prevented.

Cronquist said that 25 percent of foodborne illnesses in Colorado are part of an outbreak, while the majority are sporadic cases.

In-person interviews are a key element in determining if there is an outbreak and what the source might be. Cronquist said public health officials conduct multiple interviews with those who are sick, their neighbors and other individuals who may have come in contact with the food item.

Supermarket shopper or loyalty cards have proven a useful tool in tracing outbreaks and sources.

Cronquist and Goldman said shopper card data have been used effective in recent outbreaks. Health officials work with the stores to review the data.

Clearer, more thorough labeling can also help prevent outbreaks, said Wise. The case he presented involved broiled chicken livers. Wise feels the term “broiled” implied the items were ready-to-eat, but in actuality they needed further cooking.

Goldman said the Food Safety an Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration are taking steps to reduce the prevalence of foodborne illnesses. He cited a recent federal Salmonella Action Plan that expanded meat testing and a risk-assessment plan for Listeria in deli settings as examples of new initiatives.

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