Foster Farms aims to step up food safety at Livingston, Fresno plants

10/14/2013 5:26 PM

10/14/2013 9:49 PM

A home cook who wants to prevent salmonella can wash cutting boards, countertops and utensils thoroughly.

Foster Farms, which is dealing with a salmonella outbreak at its chicken plants in Livingston and Fresno, has a bigger job ahead. It has to show that it can protect the public’s health as it processes hundreds of thousands of birds delivered from poultry ranches every day.

The company had planned an online news conference Monday morning to update the media on its efforts to deal with an outbreak that has sickened an estimated 317 people since March, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was postponed to an undetermined date because the company still is collecting the data it plans to discuss, a spokesman said.

Foster Farms did provide photos of how it sanitizes the plants, a task that involves a lot of soapy water on the thousands of moving parts in each plant.

“It is standard operating procedure at Foster Farms to sanitize each of its plants daily, 365 days a year,” the company said in a brief statement. “The process takes four to six hours. The plants cannot resume operation until USDA verifies them as sanitary on a daily basis.”

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service had threatened last week to pull its inspectors from the plants, effectively shutting them down. Thursday, the deadline for a response from Foster Farms, the agency noted progress on improved sanitation and let the plants keep operating.

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation in Modesto, said much of the effort will involve washing carcasses and equipment even more than Foster Farms was doing.

Rinses containing “food-grade additives” are a key part of keeping microbes under control, the National Chicken Council said in an advisory about the Foster Farms situation. It also said frequent testing is done by industry and government employees.

The council, based in Washington, D.C., said all raw crops and livestock products could have microbes that could sicken people if the foods are not handled and cooked properly.

“Raw chicken is not sterile,” it said. “For consumers, the bottom line is that all chicken is safe when properly cooked (165 degrees F) and handled, and that chicken producers and processors are continually working to make them even safer.”

A letter from the FSIS said one Foster Farms plant had salmonella in 25 percent of the tested products, much higher than the agency allows. The problem was found in raw whole chickens, chicken parts, tenderloins and strips, but not in cooked items the company sells.

Many food processors in the San Joaquin Valley deal with food-safety measures, but for chicken, they are especially demanding. The newly slaughtered birds rest on cone-shaped supports as they move about on conveyors. The employees wear protective suits, boots and other attire as they slice the chickens into parts. They are followed daily by other workers who spray down the operation.

All that had not been enough for the FSIS, which said chicken from the plants was infecting people with salmonella from March to at least September, mostly in California. Six cases were reported in Stanislaus County and two in San Joaquin County.

The FSIS said the most common symptoms are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within eight to 72 hours. Chills, headache, nausea and vomiting can last up to seven days.

No deaths were reported, but officials said the rate of hospitalization was relatively high for a salmonella outbreak.

Foster Farms did not recall the chicken, but Costco Wholesale did so for nearly 40,000 pounds of rotisserie chicken that it purchased from the company and prepared at its South San Francisco store.

Some experts on the poultry industry told the Los Angeles Times that Foster Farms has been a leader in food-safety efforts.

“The company’s reputation up until lately has been spotless,” Thomas E. Elam, president of the farming consulting company FarmEcon in Carmel, Ind., said in the Times. “They’ve had an incredibly good safety record. They have been a really innovative company, jumping on top of the natural, eco-friendly, California themes.”

Salmonella can be present along any link in the supply chain. The bacteria thrive in animal intestinal tracts and are spread through contact with feces, whether in the air, water or ground. Feathers also can carry fecal dust particles.

Chicken and turkey are more susceptible to contamination than beef or pork because the skin is often left on for consumption.

Federal officials told the Times that conditions such as those listed in the FSIS letter to Foster Farms are not uncommon in the poultry industry.

“The noncompliances identified in these three facilities were in no way indicative there was a process out of control,” said Dan Englejohn of the USDA’s inspection unit.

Critics said that underscores a glaring weakness in the inspection system. They say virulent forms of antibiotic-resistant salmonella should be handled like E. coli O157:H7, which triggers an automatic recall.

“Producers have been successful at deflecting blame back on to consumers for not cooking poultry properly. It’s nonsensical,” food safety lawyer Bill Marler told the Times.

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