WASHINGTON — With the number of salmonella illnesses linked to Foster Farms chicken climbing to more than 600 cases this month, two members of Congress introduced legislation this week that would require food recalls in such circumstances.
The 8-month-long outbreak, traced to a Foster Farms plant in Livingston and two smaller plants in Fresno, has spread to 27 states and Puerto Rico, with dozens of new cases emerging in recent weeks. The cases are connected to chicken processed in plants that are struggling to kill salmonella strains resistant to several classes of antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Agriculture Department has issued a public health alert and has overseen changes in Foster Farms' processing lines, including the addition of new anti-bacterial sprays, but department officials said they do not have the authority to order a recall.
Foster Farms has declined to order a voluntary recall, saying it believes the chicken is safe if properly handled to prevent spread of the contamination and is cooked to at least 165 degrees.
On Wednesday, Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said consumers need better protections. They said that USDA officials have authority to order recalls when especially virulent bacterial strains are triggering outbreaks and that a new law is needed.
The USDA said it has not taken a position on the bill, but issued a statement Wednesday: "We appreciate the Congresswomen's ongoing efforts on our shared goal of ensuring food safety standards continue to be stringent, effective, and constantly improving." The USDA added that it is working "aggressively in preventing foodborne illness."
The measure would require the USDA to recall meat, poultry and egg products contaminated by pathogens that cause serious illnesses or death and that are resistant to two or more classes of antibiotics commonly used to treat human illnesses.
The outbreak linked to Foster Farms involves seven strains of the bacteria known as salmonella Heidelberg that are resistant to several classes of commonly prescribed antibiotics, the CDC said.
Foster Farms said it has spent $75 million in upgrades to reduce salmonella in recent months, with an emphasis on decreasing the bacteria in chicken parts — breasts, thighs and wings — that have been implicated in the outbreak.
Recent tests, the company said, show salmonella rates for the company's chicken parts are about 2% at the three plants tied to the outbreak. The industry standard is 25% The USDA does not have a standard for chicken parts, but is determining what it should be.