Foster Farms can continue operating chicken-processing plants in Fresno and Livingston that have been implicated in a salmonella outbreak, but with intensified sampling for disease pathogens, a federal official said Thursday.
Aaron Lavallee, deputy assistant administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the company has taken action to correct problems that led to a salmonella outbreak in 18 states, including California.
The USDA had put its foot down Monday, giving Foster Farms a Thursday deadline to show that it could correct the problems that led to the outbreak.
"Foster Farms has submitted and implemented immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations," said Lavallee, an agency official from Washington, D.C.
Federal inspectors will verify that Foster Farms doesn't slack on its promises, he said. The agency will continue intensified sampling at the plants for at least the next 90 days, he added.
Ron Foster, president and CEO of Foster Farms, said the USDA's decision is a validation of the company's new food safety controls, and its commitment to install additional improvements over the next 90 days.
Foster also defended the company's decision not to recall the contaminated chicken. He cited a statement issued by California state health officer Dr. Ron Chapman that said a recall was not necessary because with proper handling and preparation the chicken is safe to consume.
In a statement issued by the company Thursday evening, Foster said: "We started this process more than two months ago and this officially validates our progress, but we are not stopping here. We are putting every resource and all of our energy toward food safety with the confidence that Foster Farms plants will be the most stringent in the industry."
Federal inspectors continue to inspect and approve the safety of Foster Farms chicken daily, he said.
Poultry plants aren't permitted to operate without USDA inspectors, who are considered essential government employees and have continued to work during the partial government shutdown.
Foster Farms employs more than 1,000 people in its two Fresno County facilities, including poultry processing and hatcheries. The company's main chicken-processing plant in Livingston is one of the nation's largest with about 3,000 employees.
At least 278 cases of salmonella have been reported, most of them in California (including five in Fresno County).
Sampling by the USDA in September showed that raw chicken processed by Foster Farms' California facilities included strains of salmonella that were linked to the outbreak.
In a letter sent Monday to Foster Farms, the federal agency said those samples coupled with illnesses suggest that the sanitary conditions at the facility "could pose a serious ongoing threat to public health."
The first illnesses in the outbreak were reported in March and the outbreak has had a high rate of hospitalizations. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said 42% of victims were hospitalized, about double the normal rate, and it is resistant to many antibiotics, making it a more dangerous outbreak.
In the letter, Yudhbir Sharma of USDA's Alameda district office said Foster Farms has failed to demonstrate that it had adequate controls in place to address the salmonella issue. He said that in one of the facilities, 25% of the samples taken were positive for salmonella.
The letter said that prior to the outbreak, USDA inspectors had documented "fecal material on carcasses" along with "poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary nonfood contact surfaces and direct product contamination."
Consumer Reports magazine said Wednesday that it found the potent strain of salmonella while testing a batch of Foster Farms chicken and demanded a recall.
"It is outrageous that Foster Farms has not issued a recall in the face of so many illnesses associated with their product," said Urvashi Rangan, toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center.
"We are calling on Foster Farms and the retail outlets that sell Foster Farms to recall the chicken processed at these plants. Foster Farms has a responsibility to public health to take this step."
Supermarkets have dealt with the outbreak in a variety of ways.
Kroeger Co., for example, announced it was removing Foster Farms chicken produced at the affected plants from its stores, including Food 4 Less, and said it would give refunds to consumers who returned chicken they had purchased.
Save Mart noted the USDA's health advisory and referred consumers to the agency's website and to Foster Farms. Safeway, which owns Von's, did not appear to have any notice on its website.
The federal Food Safety and Inspection Service's health alert targeted Foster Farms chicken with one of these stamps on the label:
The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times contributed to this report. The reporters can be reached at (559) 441-6330, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com