USDA Criticized for Not Closing Farms Linked To Salmonella Outbreak

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Foster Farms chicken on sale in a grocery store in Los Angeles, Calif. Oct. 8, 2013.

The plants linked to salmonella-tainted chicken that has sickened nearly 300 people will remain open, despite calls to shut them down.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) called back furloughed food safety workers to track the strain to California-based Foster Farms, and sent a letter to the company on Oct. 7 warning of lapses in food safety practices.

The company responded with a plan to address the violations, which included unsanitary dressing procedures for employees, unsanitary surfaces as well as evidence of fecal matter on chicken carcasses dating back to January, according to ABC News. In an Oct. 10 statement posted on the company’s website, Foster Farms CEO Ron Foster said the proposal allowed the company to keep its three facilities open.

The USDA says that since raw chicken is supposed to be cooked properly, the chicken plants do not need to be closed. “Foster Farms has submitted and implemented immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations,” said USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee in a statement.

But that isn’t reassuring the public or public health experts. Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter of New York, a microbiologist, released a statement saying: “It is a disgrace that the USDA, a body charged with protecting the public’s food supply, has chosen to let a repeat offender like Foster Farms continue operations. Foster Farms has been cited multiple times for sanitary violations just since January of this year. They had ample opportunity after the July outbreak incident traced to their Washington state plant to clean up all their operations, but they chose not to. Now they are addressing three plants in California, but they – and we – should be worried about all of their plants across the United States.”

Dr. Richard Besser, who was acting director of the CDC in 2009 and now the chief health and medical editor at ABC News, told Good Morning America that “Until this is over, I would still stay away from this chicken.”

What concerns Besser and other public health experts is that some of the salmonella strains isolated from the chicken and linked to the people who have fallen ill are resistant to antibiotics, and seem to be causing more symptoms than expected. Nearly half, or 42% of those infected have been hospitalized, which is twice the rate of most salmonella infections. Bill Marler, a food safety attorney based in Seattle told the Los Angles Times that the USDA needs to take a firmer stance on antibiotic use in agriculture since that practice is leading to more strains emerging in people that can’t be treated with antibiotics. “The USDA has been incredibly gun-shy with salmonella and basically has been punting this problem down the road,” Marler said. “While at the same time you’re seeing more virulent and more antibiotic-resistant salmonella. The reality on the ground is not keeping up with science. The fact is, this stuff is more problematic than it was just 10 years ago. It’s a different ballgame.”

The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service inspectors will verify that the changes Foster Farms promised to make are completed, and will continue to sample the chicken products over the next 90 days.

Read more about the salmonella outbreak, here.