Fresno County fire captain sues Foster Farms, Costco after getting sick

The Fresno BeeMarch 6, 2014 

A Fresno County fire captain is suing Foster Farms and Costco Wholesale Corp., saying he got severely ill last fall after eating chicken he bought from the Costco store in Clovis.

Robert Jeremiah Wittwer, 30, got sick soon after he purchased a package of chicken around Oct. 4 -- just three days before a federal agency reported that 278 people might have been infected with salmonella from Foster Farms chicken that was undercooked or improperly handled.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the "likely source" of the chicken was either the main Foster Farms plant in Livingston or one of two smaller sites in Fresno.

A salmonella-related infection seeped into Wittwer's spine, causing him to suffer fatigue, lose 30 pounds, and "feared the worst," said Southern California attorney Robert A. Mosier, who filed the lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court on Wittwer's behalf.

Wittwer was hospitalized and doctors told him he might never walk again, Mosier said Thursday.

But after months of rehabilitation and a healthy dose of antibiotics, he was able to get back on his feet and get back to work, Mosier said.

Wittwer is suing Foster Farms for personal injury and product liability. Mosier said the defendants were negligent because, despite the government's discovery of the salmonella outbreak, Foster Farms did not issue a recall and stores like Costco kept selling the chicken.

Wittwer is seeking damages for lost wages and for hospital and medical expenses.

Costco officials could not be reached to comment, but Foster Farms released a statement, saying its food safety record is better than the industry average. The company is the top-selling poultry producer in the West.

Thursday, Wittwer, who is married with two children, referred questions to his attorney, Mosier.

This week, federal investigators added 51 salmonella cases to an outbreak linked to the three Foster Farms chicken plants, bringing the total to 481 over the past year. It wasn't clear whether Wittwer's case is among the new ones on the federal list.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously announced in January that the outbreak appeared to be over, with no new reports of sickened consumers, but that changed with the new findings this week.

The outbreak has affected people in 25 states and Puerto Rico since it started March 1, 2013, the CDC said. Three-quarters of those affected were in California. No deaths were reported, but 38% of the victims were hospitalized, the CDC said.

Health officials say salmonella occurs naturally in chicken and consumers can protect themselves by cooking the meat thoroughly and washing knives, cutting boards and other objects that come in contact with the raw product.

Insects that carry microbes can cause the disease, authorities said.

In January, a cockroach problem at the Livingston plant led to a three-day federal closure, followed by a 10-day voluntary shutdown that Foster Farms said would ensure that the problem was fixed.

"We are on the right track and have made outstanding progress," Foster Farms Chief Executive Officer Ron Foster said Monday. "Millions of consumers continue to enjoy Foster Farms poultry products each day, and we want to ensure that they have the safest, healthiest experience."

But in the lawsuit, Mosier says that the USDA had cited Foster Farms 12 times between January and October last year and that the company maintained poor sanitary conditions, including "allowing fecal material on poultry carcasses."

"This wasn't simple contamination, it was hyper contamination," he says.

"Foster Farms knew or should have known that its plants would likely result in contaminated chicken being placed in the stream of commerce," Mosier says. Instead, Foster Farms "exhibited a conscious disregard for the health and safety" of Wittwer and other consumers.

The Modesto Bee contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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