Foster Farms celebrated its 75th anniversary in the poultry business Monday, while reporting progress on salmonella concerns that made the last of those years a rough one.
About 125 people turned out at the ranch west of Waterford where the late Max and Verda Foster founded the company in 1939; the exact date is unknown. Foster Farms has since become the top-selling poultry brand in the West.
"What they had was a strong will, a strong work ethic," said grandson Ron Foster, president and chief executive officer of the company, now based in Livingston. Its largest chicken plant is located there, employing about 3,500 people, and it has about 1,300 in the Turlock turkey operation.
Company leaders said sales dropped about 25% right after news broke in October of the salmonella issues in Livingston and two Fresno plants, but they recovered quickly.
"The business is essentially back to 100% of what it was prior to the public health alert," said Bryan Reese, senior vice president for sales, marketing, research and development.
The family-owned company does not divulge financial details, but Ron Foster said last year that annual sales were running about $2.3 billion. The workforce totals about 12,000, including operations in California, the Pacific Northwest, Colorado and the South.
Federal authorities said at least 574 people got sick from eating raw chicken from the three plants; none of them died. The bacteria can cause digestive problems and other symptoms.
Salmonella occurs naturally in live chickens but can be rendered harmless if consumers cook the meat thoroughly, said Dr. Robert O'Connor, a veterinarian and senior vice president of technical services at Foster Farms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture nonetheless has rules for keeping the bacteria in check.
O'Connor said salmonella has been detected in 2% to 3% of samples of cut-up raw chicken from the three plants this spring. That is below the industry benchmark of 25% and Foster Farms' own new goal of 5%, he said. Whole, raw chickens have not been a problem.
"I believe that the risk from our products in particular is much less today than it might have been last fall," O'Connor said. He spoke Monday at a media briefing that preceded a tour of a chicken ranch near Atwater.
O'Connor said Foster Farms has invested about $75 million in upgrades, mainly at the San Joaquin Valley operations, to get salmonella under control.