The Livingston-based poultry processor --one of the nation's largest -- has earned a sterling reputation for its attention to food safety, quality and humane animal practices.
But this week, the 64-year-old company came under intense scrutiny from federal food safety officials and consumer groups after its raw poultry products were linked to a salmonella outbreak that made 317 people sick in 20 states, including 232 in California.
In the San Joaquin Valley, Stanislaus County had six cases while Fresno County had five. Kings and Madera each had one. Tulare and Merced have not reported any salmonella illnesses from Foster Farms chicken.
Facing the potential closure of three of its processing plants, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service on Thursday allowed Foster Farms to continue operating its two Fresno facilities and a third plant in Livingston after accepting the company's plan for controlling the outbreak.
Although the company was not required to recall its raw chicken products, that did not stop at least one major grocery chain from pulling Foster Farms from its shelves: national retailer Krogers, which operates Food 4 Less in the Valley plus Fred Meyer, Fry's, King Soopers, Ralphs, Smith's and QFC stores.
Late Friday night, the USDA announced that the Costco on El Camino Real in San Francisco is recalling Foster Farms-produced chicken sold in the store last month that may be contaminated.
And at least one consumer group says eating Foster Farms chicken is too risky.
"We continue to urge consumers not to consume any raw chicken produced from the three affected plants," said Urvashi Rangan, toxicologist and executive director of Consumer Reports' Food Safety and Sustainability Center.
Experts in consumer attitudes and public relations say any food-borne illness outbreak has the potential to be devastating for a company or industry.
Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis, said that during the 2006 outbreak of E.coli in bagged spinach, it took several months for the industry to recover. The outbreak caused three deaths and sickened 205.
"But even three to four years later, there are still some who would not buy spinach in a bag," Bruhn said.
To regain consumer confidence, Bruhn said it's important for companies like Foster Farms to show they are making changes to address the problem.
Betsy Hays, a public relations professional and associate professor at Fresno State, said companies must also confront skittish consumers with usable information. That could be through words, pictures or videos showing food safety procedures.
"People need to believe that they will be safe, and then they can feel good about purchasing the product," Hays said.
Foster Farms has taken some of those steps. On its website, the company said it's doing everything it can to improve food safety and it issued an apology.
Ron Foster, company president, offered this in a statement: "Food safety is -- and always has been -- at the very heart of our family business. On behalf of my family, I am sorry for any food-borne illness associated with Foster Farms chicken and for any concern this may have caused you."
Locally, several grocery stores in Fresno, including Save Mart, have continued to carry Foster Farms products, while also reminding customers at the chicken displays about safe food-handling practices.
Customers at R-N Market at Cedar and Herndon avenues in northeast Fresno were relatively nonplussed by the Foster Farms controversy, manager Kevin Lim said Friday.
"I think people care about it, but they are still buying chicken," said Lim, whose meat department had letters posted near its supply of Foster Farms products reminding customers how to safely handle and cook chicken. "I think they know to be careful to fully cook their chicken."
Lim said that he's seen no slowdown in sales of Foster Farms or other poultry products at the store.
Maria Embry, visiting Fresno from Massachusetts, said she's still buying chicken despite the salmonella outbreak. "It's not the chicken's fault," she said as she browsed the aisles at R-N.
At the R-N meat case, LaVerne Tucker said while she was always taught to cook chicken thoroughly, she might have second thoughts about buying Foster Farms products until the hubbub dies down. "I'm not in the habit of cooking chicken anymore," she said. "I've been buying more cooked chicken" from grocery stores or from fast-food restaurants.
Another R-N shopper, retired USDA meat inspector Peter Milisavac of Clovis, said he buys a lot of chicken to barbecue on the grill and roast in the oven. When the salmonella outbreak made headlines this week, "I checked my freezer and I checked the package, and I was OK," he said.
But, he added, "I'm not scared of buying chicken; I know to cook it very well." Milisavac said he worked in meat and poultry processing plants for 20 years, and understands safe food handling to avoid spreading salmonella bacteria sometimes found in raw poultry to other foods.
Outbreak strains CDC
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday added 39 people to its list of those apparently sickened by salmonella-tainted Foster Farms chicken.
The new count stood at 317 people sick in 20 states, including 232 in California. But CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said the cases may not be new ones. Of those sickened as of Thursday, 42% were hospitalized, the CDC said.
"We are getting a better characterization of it as health care providers have been told to look for it," Reynolds said.
An increase in reported cases does not mean new cases were found, but may be from earlier this week that are now linked to the outbreak, Reynolds said.
"Through DNA fingerprinting you are trying to develop information that the person did have exposure to the product," she said. "It takes a little bit of disease detective work."
She said the salmonella outbreak is a "serious threat."
"We are seeing antibiotic resistant strains and so many different strains," Reynolds said, adding that the high volume of people hospitalized is also a cause for concern.
The outbreak is one of 30 clusters of food-borne illnesses the CDC is investigating with 9,000 of 13,000 employees on furlough because of the federal government shutdown.
"We have world-renowned scientists who can't sign on to a computer," Reynolds said.
-- Marc Benjamin
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service's health alert targeted Foster Farms chicken with one of these stamps on the label:
The USDA said no recall has been ordered.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that chicken be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.