Beware! Federal Shutdown Means Tainted Chicken Is Still On Shelves

Clean-up, aisle three! Not all stores are pulling salmonella-carrying chicken.
Watch out for Foster Farms chicken, the USDA has issued a salmonella health alert.
Oct 10, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Our federal government's shutdown reached my local grocery store this morning, where there, in the meat aisle, I spotted the chicken pictured above for sale—and yes, it's from the lot that the USDA issued a salmonella health alert about.

From the same lots that have sickened more than 270 people in 18 states, including California, where I live.

But hey, it's on sale! Yeesh.

This is what happens when political fights in Washington stop the CDC from keeping people safe across the country and we leave regulation up to industry.

For its part, California chicken producer Foster Farms has made it very clear: They are not recalling salmonella-tainted chicken, despite a USDA public health alert issued Monday.

“Raw poultry is not a ready-to eat product,” said Ron Foster, president and CEO of Foster Farms in a statement. “Whether the raw product is our brand or another, whether there is an alert or not, all raw chicken must be prepared following safe handling procedures, avoiding cross contamination and must be fully cooked to 165 degrees to ensure safety.”

In otherwords, if you got sick, it’s your fault.

But food safety experts say the company’s response is irresponsible, noting that this particular strain of salmonella is especially virulent. Of those infected, an alarmingly high rate of 42 percent have been hospitalized.

“We’re not seeing an outbreak because people suddenly decided they like to eat their chicken rare,” Katrina Hedberg, Oregon’s state epidemiologist told The Oregonian. “If you’re suddenly seeing an uptick in cases, it’s probably because there’s more bacteria.”

Salmonella is not considered an adulterant in meat, like E. coli, so the USDA cannot issue a recall, but yesterday the agency strengthened its warning, saying they would suspend plant inspectors—which would shut down the three processing plants in question—if the company did not meet today’s deadline addressing all areas of non-compliance. NPR says that as of noon Eastern time, USDA had received one proposed action plan.

In an unusual step, Consumer Reports, which has an ongoing testing program for meat and poultry, announced yesterday that they too had identified salmonella on Foster Farms brand chicken that matched strains associated with the outbreak.

“To say no recall is warranted is irresponsible and doesn’t erase the problem of what Foster Farms has already sent to the market contaminated,” says Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and Executive Director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “That product should be recalled. People are still getting sick, and frankly, salmonella is just the tip of the pathogen iceberg.”

Indeed, potentially deadly pathogens lurking in poultry is an ongoing problem. According to the CDC, from 1998 to 2008 there were more than 600,000 estimated illnesses from bacteria in poultry related products alone. A sobering figure.

Doug Powell, publisher of BarfBlog and former food safety professor at Kansas State University says while mandatory recalls may be effective, public shaming works.

Just look at Sunland, Inc. the peanut butter processing plant that was involved in a similar nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2012. Unlike the Foster Farms’ chicken, which is regulated by the USDA, peanut butter falls under the FDA, which did have recall authority. Sunland, Inc. filed for bankruptcy yesterday.

What is concerning, says Powell, is that Foster Farms isn’t giving specifics. The company maintains the safety processes and controls they’ve implemented are proprietary.

“I would argue that the best companies, are just like the best restaurants. If you get an A-rating, you go out and brag about it,” he says. “They say they called in food safety experts. Who are they? What are they doing? What has the company done that’s different than what they did before? They have to walk the talk.”

And, he says, once that raw chicken makes it home from the supermarket, cross contamination is almost impossible to avoid.

“In food safety, we talk about the farm to fork system, and everyone has a responsibility to lower levels of contamination,” he says. “When a company or government agency tells you to be careful and cook your chicken, beware. That’s blaming the consumer, and it’s a common facet of modern day outbreaks. It’s easier to blame the end user. I’d say to the government, take care of your own child first.”

So, please be on the lookout for packages marked "P6137," "P6137A" and "P7632."

I spoke to the store manager later this morning. They've removed Foster Farms' products the shelves, as are Kroger grocery stores including Ralphs and Food 4 Less—but who knows if other stores are being as responsible.