The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a public health alert on October 7 due to concerns that illness caused by strains of Salmonella Heidelberg are associated with raw chicken products produced by Foster Farms at three facilities in California. In a release the agency said: "At this point in the investigation, FSIS is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period." Raw products from the facilities P6317, P6317A and P7632 are the ones of concern, according to FSIS.

USDA said that the public health alert was issued because an estimated 278 illnesses were recently reported in 18 states, predominantly in California. The agency said, "The investigations indicate that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken and other brand chicken produced at Foster Farms plants are the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections. Illnesses were linked to Foster Farms brand chicken through epidemiologic, laboratory and traceback investigations conducted by local, state and federal officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is partnering with state health departments to monitor the outbreak while FSIS continues its investigation."

Foster Farms has announced that it is working with the U.S. and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to reduce the incidence of Salmonella Heidelberg on raw chicken products produced at three company facilities in Central California. In a press release the company said, "Only raw chicken products are involved. This activity is in response to an FSIS-issued alert regarding the increased incidence of Salmonella Heidelberg infection caused by eating undercooked or improperly handled chicken. While the company, FSIS and CDC continue to investigate the issue, Foster Farms has instituted a number of additional food safety practices, processes and technology throughout company facilities that have already proven effective in controlling Salmonella in its Pacific Northwest operations earlier this year. No recall is in effect."

The company is committed to ensuring the safety of its products, according to Foster Farms President Ron Foster. "Our family-owned company has maintained an excellent food safety record during its near 80-year history," he said. "We deeply regret any foodborne illness that may be associated with any of our products. Food safety is at the very heart of our business. It is a continuous process of improvement. In addition to collaborating with FSIS and CDC, the company has retained national experts in epidemiology and food safety technology to assess current practices and identify opportunities for further improvement."

Salmonella is naturally occurring in poultry and can be fully eradicated if raw product is properly handled and fully cooked, said Dr. Robert O'Connor, the company's food safety chief and head veterinarian. "All poultry producers strive to reduce bacterial presence, including Salmonella," he said. "We take food safety very seriously. When the incidence of illnesses linked to Salmonella increased, we wanted to know why and we have worked quickly to identify and implement additional controls. It is also important to reassure the public that the FSIS process has not been affected by the recent government shutdown."

Salmonella Heidelberg is the nation's third most common strain of the Salmonella pathogen, which can result in foodborne illness if not destroyed by the heat of proper cooking. Salmonella Heidelberg was also implicated in a large foodborne illness outbreak in the U.S. associated with ground turkey in recent years.