The recent outbreak of human Salmonellosis cases that have been linked to consuming chicken from three Foster Farms facilities and the actions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Foster Farms and some of Foster Farms’ customers have been difficult for some legislators, media and consumers to understand. I don’t claim to have any special knowledge of the events before and after the USDA issued a public health alert stating Foster Farms' chicken products were associated with the outbreak, but I hope I can help some people gain a better understanding of why some of the parties have taken the steps that they have.

Background

Raw, ready-to-cook poultry is not sterile, and some of the bacteria found on ready-to-cook poultry are likely a serotype of Salmonella. Some Salmonella serotypes aren’t human pathogens, but others, such as Heidelberg, typhimurium and enteritidis are commonly associated with foodborne illnesses in humans and are sometimes found on poultry. Ready-to-cook poultry products derived from birds that are processed appropriately, and are treated with USDA- and FDA-approved antimicrobial agents, may still have Salmonella and or Campylobacter present on them. Even an effective, multi-hurdle approach to pathogen reduction will leave low levels of microorganisms on the ready-to-cook poultry product. There are no processing “kill steps” for raw poultry other than irradiation for total elimination of pathogens, and irradiation is not used commercially in the United States for poultry.

Informed consumers

Whether or not someone gets sick from eating a food item that has Salmonella on it depends on the amount of bacteria consumed and the ability of the person’s immune system to fight off infection. With proper cooking and handling, Salmonella can be killed on poultry products, and cross contamination of other food items that are not cooked can be prevented. Some segments of the population are more susceptible to foodborne illness: the very old, very young and anyone else with a compromised immune system.

By issuing a public health alert regarding Foster Farms’ chicken products from the three facilities linked to the outbreak, the USDA was letting the general public know about the possible increased risk associated with these products, and this could be particularly useful information for anyone in an at-risk category. I think that the USDA was correct in issuing the warning.

To recall or not?

Foster Farms has announced that they began taking additional steps two months ago in the three facilities linked to the outbreak to reduce the incidence of Salmonella on poultry products produced there. They have also stated that they are continuing to add additional control measures. The USDA has accepted that the changes that Foster Farms and the Foster plants are operating under increased scrutiny for the next few months. Foster Farms has not elected to recall any product. Since none of us outside of the USDA and Foster Farms have access to the data, we can’t comment with certainty on whether or not this is the right decision. But, I suspect that the USDA wouldn’t have said that Foster Farms could continue processing and didn't ask for a recall if they weren’t convinced that it was the right decision.

Costco issued a recall for approximately 40,000 pounds of rotisserie chicken sold by one store. The chicken in question had been cooked in the store prior to sale to consumers. Consumption of this rotisserie chicken from this store had been linked to the outbreak. This chicken was sold as ready-to-eat, so most consumers would not cook it again prior to eating. This explains why the Costco recall is appropriate, even though Foster Farms is not recalling the ready-to-cook product.

Kroger Co. decided to recall Foster Farms’ ready-to-cook items produced at the three facilities linked to the outbreak from its family of stores. I guess each customer had a decision to make, but I can say that I don’t quite understand Kroger’s decision based on the publicly released information.