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Foster Farms to pay in first-of-its-kind lawsuit verdictFoster Farms to pay in first-of-its-kind lawsuit verdict

Jury attributes 70% of $6.5 million verdict to family’s food preparation.

Krissa Welshans 1

March 12, 2018

3 Min Read
Foster Farms to pay in first-of-its-kind lawsuit verdict

An Arizona federal court recently returned a $6.5 million verdict in favor of a five-and-a-half-year-old child who suffered a brain injury in 2013 as a result of a Salmonella Heidelberg infection allegedly from chicken produced by Foster Poultry Farms.

According to Pritzker Hageman P.A., the Minneapolis, Minn., law firm representing the plaintiffs, the case sets an important precedent for food safety as it established that chicken producers like Foster Poultry Farms can be held responsible for salmonella contamination on raw chicken product, even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not consider salmonella per se an “adulterant” in raw chicken and even though the bacteria can be killed by cooking the chicken.

Foster Poultry Farms argued that because salmonella is “natural” to raw chicken, it cannot form the basis of liability, regardless of the amount and type of contamination. Further, the company asserted that there was no evidence that the child ever consumed its product because the plaintiffs could not produce shopper card records, receipts or other direct evidence that they had purchased Foster Farms chicken.

The plaintiffs introduced evidence that Foster Farms’ entire operation was infested with particularly dangerous strains of S. Heidelberg, including the strain that sickened Noah Craten. The jury considered evidence of prior foodborne illness outbreaks linked to Foster Farms and epidemiological evidence that Craten was part of a very large S. Heidelberg outbreak identified by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and other health departments. According to CDC, 639 people from 29 states were sickened in the Foster Farms salmonella outbreak from March 1, 2013, to July 11, 2014.

In what is believed to be the first verdict of its kind, the jury concluded that Foster Farms was negligent in producing S. Heidelberg-contaminated chicken and that, based on epidemiological and microbiological evidence alone, it caused Craten’s illness. The jury attributed 30% of the fault to Foster Farms and 70% to family members for their preparation of the chicken. The net verdict for the family was $1.95 million.

According to lead trial attorney Eric Hageman, the verdict establishes a precedent that should change the poultry industry.

“Traditionally, Foster Farms and other poultry producers have argued that they are under absolutely no obligation to address even pervasive salmonella contamination. The jury in this case said 'Enough is enough. Clean up your act.'” According to Hageman, the jury’s verdict “showed that Foster Farms cannot simply hide behind USDA ‘approval’ of its chicken” and was “a rejection of the argument that poultry companies can produce contaminated product and then blame consumers who get sick from eating it.”

In a statement to Feedstuffs, Foster Farms noted that the jury assessed 70% of the damages ($4.55 million) as being the responsibility of the Craten family while assigning 30% of the damages ($1.95 million) to Foster Farms.

“It is important to note that family shopping records presented at the trial, covering the six-month period prior to the onset of illness, failed to demonstrate the purchase of Foster Farms chicken,” the company said, adding, “Regardless of the source of illness, Foster Farms is pleased that Noah Craten has recovered.”

The company further emphasized that it is in the interest of all poultry producers to ensure that the safest possible product reaches the marketplace.

“Since 2013, Foster Farms has instituted a multi-hurdle salmonella control program and committed to a company-wide salmonella prevalence level of 5% in whole-body chickens and parts. This compares to the USDA permissible level of 9.8% for whole-body chickens and 15.4% for parts," the company said. "Foster Farms’ current food safety performance record is recognized as being among the best in the U.S. poultry industry, and the company is committed to advancing food safety for the benefit of consumers, customers and the poultry industry.”

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