USDA may shut down California Foster Farms plants after salmonella outbreak

by Christina Cocca and Beverly White, NBC Los Angeles

Foster Farms may be forced to close three California processing plants if the sites turn out to be linked to a Salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of people. Federal officials believe plants in Fresno and Livingston may not have properly processed the poultry. “We have concerns that they have some difficulties in producing a safe product right now,” said David Goldman of the Food Safety Inspection Service.

The US Department Agriculture is giving Foster Farms until Thursday to come up with a plan to fix the Salmonella problem or inspectors will close the two plants in Fresno and one in Livingston.

The outbreak sickened at least 278 people in 17 states, including dozens of Southern California residents. Officials from the Center for Disease Control originally listed 18 states but later amended the count.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday only issued a health warning for the chicken and did not issue a recall. A spokesman for Foster Farms said the infections were caused by eating undercooked or improperly handled chicken.

A Chula Vista family believes they got sick last week from eating tainted chicken. “I started feeling violently ill. I had to constantly run to the bathroom, and I thought I had the stomach flu,” Jim Blair said. The chicken in question bears USDA inspection marks P6137, P6137A and P7632.

Twenty CDC staffers were called back to work to help with the outbreak — out of 9,000 furloughed by the government shutdown. “It’s really outrageous that Congress is keeping our top experts at home when the public health demands that people be at work,” said Caroline Smith DeWall, a food safety inspector for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Some of the Salmonella strains are resistant to antibiotics, with a hospitalization rate that’s double the normal amount, according to the California Department of Public Health.

The president of the company under fire, Ron Foster, said in statement that food safety is “at the heart of our family business.”

“On behalf of my family, I am sorry for any foodborne illness associated with Foster Farms chicken and for any concern this may have caused you,” Foster said.

People must cook chicken to at least 165 degrees and thoroughly wash their hands after handling raw meat. Anyone who believes they were infected and is showing symptoms like diarrhea and abdominal cramps should contact doctors immediately.

Salmonella is a pathogen that contaminates meat during slaughter and processing, and is especially common in undercooked chicken.