Politicians Play Chicken with America's Health While Salmonella Sickens Hundreds

Americans beware, federal shutdown means your food isn't getting the attention it usually gets.

Watch out: salmonella outbreak during federal shutdown. (Illustrated by Lauren Wade)

Oct 8, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Americans will have to protect themselves from the salmonella outbreak that's sickened nearly 300 people in 18 states because the federal government's shutdown has furloughed many of the government scientists who track such outbreaks.

The multi-state outbreak was announced by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service Monday night, but no recall is in place for the contaminated chicken and the CDC is unable to do the investigation work needed to know if the outbreak is spreading to other states.

We do know the salmonella detected is linked to chicken products produced in three Foster Farms facilities in California—two in Fresno and one in Livingston—and that the outbreak is continuing.

What’s disturbing is that other than letting you, the chicken-eating consumer, know that salmonella may be lurking in your raw chicken not much else is happening.

FSIS has no recall authority when it comes to salmonella, unlike its powers with E. coli. We’d like to link to the USDA website to back that statement up, but alas.

In 2011, when Cargill discovered the same pathogen in its ground turkey, it suspended production and implemented a voluntary recall. But so far, Foster Farms has not issued a voluntary recall for chicken processed at the facilities identified.

In an email, Foster Farms says, “None of the strains identified were resistant to antibiotics that are medically important for treating human illness.”

If you don't want to get sick with something that is treatable with antibiotics, but a dangerous illness all the same, you'll want to toss packages marked with "P6137," "P6137A" and "P7632."

In fact, because of the shutdown, we don’t even know for sure if this is a new outbreak or one (also linked to Foster Farms chicken) that has been lingering for months.

“My strong suspicion is this is not a new outbreak, but the same outbreak from May 2013, that is being updated by FSIS,” according to Seattle-based food safety attorney Bill Marler.

If salmonella had been detected in a product under FDA jurisdiction, such as spinach, spices or jalapeno peppers, it would have been recalled.

“It’s nice FSIS announced there’s an outbreak that’s poisoning our fellow citizens, but they’re not doing anything about it,” says Marler.

And unless the USDA pulls meat inspectors from Foster Farms’ production lines, chicken will continue to be processed by the company and sold to stores. Indeed, the company’s FAQ on the recall maintains that their poultry products are “safe and wholesome to consume when safe food handling and cooking practices are followed.”

What they’re saying in effect is this: People got sick because they ate chicken that was improperly handled or undercooked. But what Foster Farms is not saying is that maybe a potentially deadly pathogen like salmonella shouldn’t have been on the chicken in the first place.