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Is Foster Farms A Food Safety Pioneer Or A Persistent Offender?

Foster Farms set up new procedures to deal with salmonella contamination after the USDA threatened to shut down its plants last fall.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Foster Farms set up new procedures to deal with salmonella contamination after the USDA threatened to shut down its plants last fall.

Foster Farms, a chicken producer in California, just can't seem to stop bleeding bad news.

On July 3, it recalled several batches of chicken products because a chicken breast from one of those batches is blamed for poisoning someone with salmonella bacteria. The recall came on top of an outbreak of salmonella that's been going on since October 2013. Some of the 621 cases reported in 29 states and Puerto Rico have been linked to Foster Farms chicken products. And let's not forget last fall, when U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety officials threatened to shut down a Foster Farms processing plant in Fresno, Calif., because of salmonella contamination.

But here's the paradox: Foster Farms may now be one of the country's cleanest, safest sources of chicken products. That's according to the USDA, which has been testing chicken parts that are processed at Foster Farms plants.

After the USDA threatened to shut down the plants in October, the company called in food safety experts and set up new procedures to eliminate salmonella contamination. It's made a difference, the government says. At Foster Farms plants, fewer than 5 percent of chicken parts test positive for salmonella. At other companies, it's typically about 20 percent.

In mid-June, in fact, Foster Farms celebrated this success at a meeting to mark the company's 75th anniversary. Company officials were joined by government officials who sang the company's praises.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California called on other chicken companies to follow Foster Farms' example. David Acheson, former chief medical officer of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and a former associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, praised the company for being "willing to devote the time and resources to becoming a world leader in food safety."

This latest recall, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's reports that Foster Farms chicken is linked to a wider salmonella outbreak, now are raising questions about how effective the company's safety push effort really has been.

There's a possible explanation for the conflicting reports from Foster Farms. It's possible that the recent spate of bad news reflects Foster Farms' earlier operations, before the recent improvements. The July recall, for instance, covers chicken products that emerged from a Foster Farms plant back in March. Similarly, even though the CDC continues releasing updates on a large salmonella outbreak, with 621 people sickened, most of those people actually got sick many months ago.

In addition, even though the CDC has linked this salmonella outbreak to chicken from Foster Farms, a USDA spokesman says it's possible that the outbreak may come from multiple sources. Some of the cases of salmonella poisoning, for instance, have been reported in places where Foster Farms doesn't even distribute its chicken.

According to a statement from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, "because our intensified sampling [at Foster Farms facilities] is showing low levels of Salmonella ... FSIS has been investigating whether illnesses are being caused by other sources."

Finally, even though Foster Farms has reduced salmonella contamination at its plants, it hasn't managed to eliminate it completely. So there's still a risk that the bacteria make somebody sick. Maybe Foster Farms was just really unlucky.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.
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