FOLLOWING a tense week for Foster Farms, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced late Oct. 10 that its Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) had reached an agreement to keep the company's three California poultry processing plants operating under federal inspection.
FSIS issued a public health alert Oct. 7, citing concerns about illnesses caused by strains of Salmonella heidelberg associated with raw chicken products produced in those facilities.
In three notices of intended enforcement FSIS sent to Foster Farms last Monday, the agency threatened to pull inspectors from the facility, shutting down slaughter and processing operations.
"Since July 1, FSIS and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention have been investigating an ongoing outbreak of human illness caused by Salmonella heidelberg beginning in March 2013 through at least September 2013," the notices of intended enforcement stated. "In addition, your failure to operate in accordance with the ... regulations is evidenced by the results of intensified salmonella verification testing conducted by FSIS over a three-week period in September 2013."
By Oct. 10, FSIS had received one of Foster Farms' proposed corrective action plans and started evaluating the plan to ensure that the company was taking the necessary steps to prevent a "persistent recurrence" of salmonella in its facilities.
"Foster Farms has submitted and implemented immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations," FSIS deputy assistant administrator Aaron Lavallee said. "FSIS inspectors will verify that these changes are being implemented in a continuous and ongoing basis. Additionally, the agency will continue intensified sampling for at least the next 90 days."
FSIS issued the public health alert and notices of intended enforcement following an estimated 278 illnesses reported in 18 states, predominantly in California. The agency's investigations, as well as those conducted by other state and federal authorities, implicated chicken produced at the Foster Farms plants as the likely source of the outbreak.
"Illnesses were linked to Foster Farms brand chicken through epidemiologic, laboratory and traceback investigations conducted by local, state and federal officials," FSIS said in its alert.
Several retailers, led by the Kroger Co., responded by pulling Foster Farms' products from the three California plants from their meat cases.
Foster Farms said it was pleased with the FSIS decision to continue inspections, noting the company's implementation of several new food safety controls over the past two months as well as its commitment to install additional processes during the enhanced inspection period over the next 90 days.
"We started this process more than two months ago, and this officially validates our progress, but we are not stopping here," said Ron Foster, president and chief executive officer of Foster Farms. "We are putting every resource and all of our energy toward food safety with the confidence that Foster Farms plants will be the most stringent in the industry."
Public health officials opted not to mandate a recall, with authorities reminding consumers to focus on proper food handling and preparation techniques to minimize the spread of any bacteria present and to cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F to neutralize any pathogens present.
"All of us at Foster Farms regret any illness associated with our products," Foster said. "We have worked relentlessly to address these issues and will continue to do so as we work to regain consumer trust and confidence in the Foster Farms brand."
CDC recalled about 30 of its more than 9,000 furloughed workers to help respond to the outbreak. Despite the federal government shutdown, Lavallee said it did not have any impact on the FSIS investigation.
"All 135 investigators, all plant inspectors and labs are still operational and have been since before Oct. 1," he told Feedstuffs last Thursday.
According to the 2014 Feedstuffs Reference Issue & Buyers Guide, Foster Farms is one of the 10 largest chicken companies in the U.S., controlling roughly 2.6% of the market. The company processes an estimated 21 million lb. of product per week.