WASHINGTON — With the number of salmonella illnesses linked to Foster Farms chicken climbing to more than 600 cases this month, two members of Congress have introduced legislation that would require food recalls in such circumstances.
Foster Farms declined to issue a voluntary recall for the chicken, produced at its Livingston headquarters plant and two smaller sites in Fresno, on the grounds that it is safe if properly handled and cooked to at least 165 degrees.
Wednesday, Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said consumers need better protections. They said U.S Department of Agriculture officials have authority to order recalls when especially virulent bacterial strains are triggering outbreaks and that a new law is needed.
“The USDA has failed to recall meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant pathogens because they do not believe they have the legal authority to do so,” the lawmakers said in a prepared statement. “This bill would ensure there is no confusion. We need federal agencies that will protect public health, not bend to the threats of deep-pocketed food producers seeking to escape regulation.”
The eight-month outbreak has spread to 27 states and Puerto Rico, with dozens of new cases emerging in recent weeks. No deaths have been reported.
The Agriculture Department has issued a public health alert and has overseen changes in Foster Farms’ processing lines, but department officials said they do not have the authority to order a recall.
Foster Farms, the top-selling poultry company in the West, announced last week that it has spent about $75 million on food-safety measures. They include increased sanitation at chicken ranches and processing plants, more intensive vaccination, and certification that breeder chickens sold to the company are salmonella-free.
The emphasis has been on decreasing the bacteria in raw chicken parts – breasts, thighs and wings – that have been implicated in the outbreak. Recent tests, the company said, show salmonella rates for parts are about 2 percent at the Livingston and Fresno plants. The industry standard is 25 percent. The USDA does not have a standard for chicken parts but is determining what it should be.
“Consumers have told us that they have confidence in the ability of USDA to keep our food supply safe and to properly supervise the poultry industry,” Foster Farms said in an emailed statement to The Modesto Bee. “As a poultry producer, we are regulated by USDA and would fully cooperate with any changes in regulations implemented by the agency, or by an act of Congress. We need to keep in mind that every day, 160 million portions of chicken are safely consumed by Americans – and that number alone says that the USDA is doing a pretty good job.”
The department said it has not taken a position on the bill, called the Pathogens Reduction and Testing Reform Act, but issued a statement Wednesday.
“We appreciate the congresswomen’s ongoing efforts on our shared goal of ensuring food safety standards continue to be stringent, effective and constantly improving,” the statement said. The USDA added that it is working “aggressively in preventing foodborne illness.”
The measure would require the USDA to recall meat, poultry and egg products contaminated by pathogens that cause serious illnesses or death and that are resistant to two or more classes of antibiotics commonly used to treat human illnesses.
The outbreak linked to Foster Farms involves seven strains of the bacteria known as salmonella Heidelberg that are resistant to several classes of commonly prescribed antibiotics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The agency said that although these antibiotics are not typically used to treat salmonella infections, antibiotic resistance can be associated with increased risk of hospitalization in those who become infected.
More than 40 percent of those who have been diagnosed with a salmonella infection linked to the Foster Farms outbreak have been hospitalized, according to the CDC. The agency also said this is the largest reported salmonella-related outbreak linked to chicken in the past three decades.
DeLauro and Slaughter were joined Wednesday by several food safety advocacy groups that for years have been pushing for the USDA to label virulent salmonella strains as “adulterants,” which would ban products contaminated with them and force a recall.
The USDA has used this approach with raw beef, declaring six E. coli strains that are antibiotic-resistant as adulterants. Over the past 15 years, as the USDA has instituted the bans, the rate of E. coli-related illnesses has plummeted, while salmonella-related illness rates have remained constant.
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report.