January 20, 2018

Consumer Groups Ask USDA to Recall Foster Farms Chicken

A coalition of consumer groups, including Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Food & Water Watch, and National Consumers League, has asked the USDA to recall the Foster Farms chicken that is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella. Those products have been linked to a nationwide outbreak that has sickened at least 317 people in 20 states and Puerto Rico.

ChickenThose groups make up the Safe Food Coalition, which is dedicated to reducing the burden of foodborne illness by improving government inspection programs. Christopher Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America, said in a statement that “the lack of a recall is especially troubling considering the number of people sickened by the outbreak, the high hospitalization rate, the antibiotic-resistant starins of Salmonella, FSIS’ testing results in the implicated plants, and the fact that the outbreak remains ongoing.”

The Coalition wants the USDA to immediately declare antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella adulterants. The Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned USDA more than two years ago to take this action, but nothing has been done. More than 40% of people sickened in this outbreak have been hospitalized, likely because four of the seven outbreak strains of Salmonella are antibiotic-resistant.

In addition, they want USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to require poultry plants to review their HACCP plans for Salmonella. Foster Farms’ plan said that Salmonella was NOT a hazard in their plants, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that Salmonella is a hazard in raw poultry. One of Foster Farms’ facilities has a 25% Salmonella contamination rate on the chicken they produce, more than three times the 7.5% limit. And even though there was a genetic match between the outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg and product in Foster Farms plants, no recall has been announced. Safe Food Coalition wants a recall when these matches are made.

The coalition wants FSIS to request authority from Congress to enforce performance standards, force mandatory recalls, and apply financial penalties on facilities that produce adulterated product. A 2001 court decision (Supreme Beef v. USDA) strangled the USDA authority to shut down a plant for failing to meet federal standards for Salmonella. That terrible decision completely shut down USDA’s ability to stop slaughterhouses from placing contaminated meat in the food supply; instead, USDA focuses on processing plants that receive the tainted product.

The group also wants the USDA to set a standard for raw chicken parts. Currently, 24% of chicken sold in this country contains Salmonella, and 21.7% contains Campylobacter. Those numbers must be reduced. They also want FSIS to conduct baseline studies and set standards for pathogen loads on poultry flocks, as Denmark and Sweden have done.

Finally, FSIS should strengthen and clarify its policy on recalls and public health alerts. Telling consumers to “cook chicken adequately” when this chicken is so contaminated with pathogenic bacteria is not good enough; consumers should be told to discard or return Foster Farms chicken to the place of purchase. Cross-contamination in the kitchen is very difficult to prevent, so “adequately cooking” this chicken is not good advice.

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