CONCERNS over a string of salmonella cases in California may be affecting consumers' willingness to pay for chicken at the retail meat case, according to a recent study by Oklahoma State University.
With at least 317 people reported to be sick across the country, the California-centered outbreak led to a widening recall last week.
As reported last week in Feedstuffs, California-based chicken processor Foster Farms was at the center of an outbreak that nearly led to enforcement action by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The company submitted plans to the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS), however, and its proposed enhancement of processes and procedures kept federal inspectors on the job.
Costco, one of the nation's largest wholesale clubs, extended its recall of chicken products linked to the outbreak last Thursday, including more than 14,000 units of rotisserie chicken products. A recall announced the previous weekend had included more than 40,000 lb. of chicken products sold in late September.
A USDA statement concluded that cross-contamination was a potential culprit in the outbreak after Costco reported that it cooks its rotisserie chicken products to 180 degrees F, well above the 165 degrees F minimum established as necessary for killing the pathogen.
"At this time, it appears that the problem may be the result of cross-contamination after the cooking process in the preparation area," USDA said in a statement. "FSIS is continuing to work with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention), public health partners in California and Costco on the investigation."
According to data from CDC, seven different strains of Salmonella heidelberg have been reported from 20 states and Puerto Rico as of Oct. 11, with 73% of the infected population coming from California. The strain appears to be resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics. CDC said the resistance may be associated with an increased risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals.
Of those infected, 42% had been hospitalized, but no deaths had been attributed to the outbreak yet. CDC continued to encourage consumers to follow recommended food safety tips — including proper handling and cooking — to prevent salmonella infection from consuming any poultry products.
Kroger, one of the nation's largest food retailers, announced Oct. 8 that it would remove all Foster Farms products from its shelves because of the outbreak. The long-term impact of the outbreak on the company is still unknown, but in the short run, the situation could be dampening consumers' willingness to pay for chicken.
Oklahoma State University's monthly "Food Demand Survey" found that consumers were willing to pay $4.91/lb. for chicken breast, down nearly 20 cents from what the survey observed in September.
Economist Jayson Lusk, who administers the monthly survey of more than 1,000 consumers across the country, said the ongoing coverage of the salmonella situation likely played a role.
"We saw a large increase in how much people said they heard about salmonella," he explained.
Awareness of the pathogen increased 21.3% from the previous month's survey, while the number of participants reportedly having food poisoning in October increased 27.7% from September, which Lusk said could be due to news coverage of the outbreak.
Consumers have listed salmonella and other foodborne pathogens such as Escherichia coli among their top food and agriculture concerns each month since the survey's inception earlier this year.
FSIS first warned Foster Farms that it had an issue with salmonella contamination in July, and earlier this month, the agency threatened enforcement action unless the company took corrective measures.
After Foster Farms submitted plans for new and additional processes at the implicated plants, FSIS said it would continue to allow the plants to operate under federal inspection.