Foster Farms chicken has been linked to two Salmonella outbreaks this year. But the company’s history with the pathogen stretches back more than a decade.
When, earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that Foster Farms was, again, the source of a multi-state Salmonella outbreak, the company took a similar approach it used the first time. Instead of a recall, it issued a statement saying Salmonella was commonly found on poultry and consumers should take care when they handle and cook it.
It’s true that Salmonella is commonly found on poultry and that consumers should take care when handling and preparing it, or any other raw food. It’s also true that companies should take care to produce food that doesn’t make people sick. But that wasn’t the case at Foster Farms.
In a letter to the company’s owners, the USDA said conditions at three of the company’s California plants were so bad they would need to be closed if problems weren’t immediately addressed. This, just months after problems at Foster Farms plants outside California caused a Salmonella outbreak that sickened 134 people.
In a statement posted on the company’s website earlier this week, Foster Farms pointed out how common the outbreak strain was. “Salmonella Heidelberg is the nation’s third most common strain of the Salmonella pathogen, which can result in foodborne illness if not destroyed by the heat of proper cooking.”
True, but common doesn’t mean harmless. Salmonella Heidelberg is common but it causes illness and death. And, in this outbreak, three of the seven Salmonella Heidelberg strains are considered common, four are considered rare and resistant to multiple drugs according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Furthermore, Foster Farms is one reason why Salmonella Heidelberg is so common.
Between 2002 – 2011, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) retail meat surveillance program found Salmonella in 13 percent of the 11,417 samples of chicken. Of the 1,503 samples that tested positive for Salmonella, 233 or 16 percent were Salmonella Heidelberg. And of the 233 samples that tested positive for Salmonella Heidelberg, 47 were from Foster Farms. So, over a nine-year period, one fifth of all supermarket chicken that tested positive Salmonella Heidelberg came from Foster Farms.