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In response to the human Salmonellosis outbreak linked to Foster Farms’ raw chicken products, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) paperwork to get copies of USDA FSIS documentation of any deficiencies found at Foster Farms’ processing plants. NRDC is an environmental activist group that is campaigning to eliminate the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, and the FOIA requests were made to find any information that would advance this cause.
The information obtained as a result of the FOIA requests was shared with the Los Angeles Times. Not surprisingly, USDA FSIS personnel at Foster Farms’ Livingston, California, plant found deficiencies “more than 40 times” over the two months immediately following the shut down for a “cockroach infestation,” according to a recent Los Angeles Times article. I say not surprisingly, because I have worked in large poultry processing facilities, and anyone who has knows how the game is played.
First, product from Foster Farms’ facilities is linked to the Salmonella outbreak. Just as any responsible company would do, Foster Farms put every aspect of its broiler operations under the microscope to find out where the Salmonella was first appearing in the production chain and instituted any steps it could come up with to reduce or eliminate the problem. Based on company statements about steps they now take with their breeders, we can surmise that the contamination with the Salmonella strain linked to the outbreak was an issue as far back in the chain as the breeders. Foster also enacted numerous additional interventions in their processing plant.
Foster kept processing chicken and didn’t issue a recall. The USDA caught a lot of heat in the media and from advocacy/activist groups and some politicians, because Foster’s plants weren’t closed and they were still processing and marketing raw chicken, and the outbreak was continuing. USDA FSIS has statutory power in the processing plant and not in live operations, so its efforts had to be focused in the plant. The USDA lacked the authority to shut down the Livingston plant because of it being tied to the Salmonella outbreak, but then cockroaches were found at the Livingston plant, and it was shut down. After being closed for several days, the cockroach issue was finally resolved and the plant was reopened. It was then that the plant started racking up its “more than 40” noncompliance reports in two months.
An accumulation of noncompliance reports, particularly ones that document repeat deficiencies for contamination of product or product contact surfaces, can be used by USDA as justification for shutting down a plant. In some cases, this documentation of deficiencies is just the inspectors doing their job, but it can also be a simple matter of gaining leverage to influence the processor's future actions. I am not saying that anything improper was done, but let’s just say that in situations like this, the agency likes to employ “all resources at its disposal.” If you can’t require a recall or force a shutdown because of a possible link to a Salmonellosis outbreak, then there are other ways to “influence” the outcome, and this is why I don’t think that counting noncompliance reports at Foster Farms’ processing plants is a good way to evaluate the company’s food safety efforts.