EDITORIAL: Food safety wake-up call

Foster Farms, the Livingston-based family business with an outstanding reputation for quality, and consumers nationwide got a double-barrel wake-up call with an outbreak of salmonellosis. The illness, caused by the salmonella bacteria found in -- and completely harmless to -- chickens, has resulted in a reported 362 infections in recent weeks.

Consumers got a stark reminder about how important it is to cook chicken thoroughly and to not let raw chicken or its juice come in contact -- directly or indirectly -- with other food. When cooked to 165 degrees, the bacteria is killed.

Prior to this situation, Foster Farms -- which has two plants in Fresno -- had a good track record of keeping the prevalence of salmonella in their chickens well below the federal standard of 7.5% of birds tested and the industry standard of 3.5%.

But those tests are done before the second stage of processing, when the birds are cut up into parts (breasts, thighs, etc.), for which there is no federal or industry regulation. This is the stage where the problem arose.

This episode has made Foster Farms realize that simply being average isn't good enough, according to Ira Brill, spokesman for the company. During a meeting with The Modesto Bee on Thursday, Brill said that every aspect of the company is focused on providing an outstanding customer experience, and in no part should they settle for being average.

Since the Oct. 8 announcement of the salmonella outbreak, Foster Farms has instituted multiple new safety protocols, all the way from the breeder chickens through the processing plant. This is on top of procedures that include shutting down the facility for six to eight hours each day for cleaning and sterilization, and testing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If those daily tests aren't completed or passed, production can't resume.

Even the smallest health concerns with the food supply can cause a dramatic reaction. Foster Farms reported a decline in sales of 25% earlier this month. While he wasn't able to provide specific numbers, Brill said that sales are recovering.

Foster Farms is in the midst of a study with UC Davis to further explore ways to help consumers prevent salmonella contamination. Brill said that Foster Farms would like to get to a point where salmonella-related illness is a thing of the past.

Given the company's track record and its willingness to accept responsibility and act as a result, we are inclined to believe them.