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Consumer Food Safety Alert: Multistate outbreak of drug resistant Salmonella Heidelberg infections linked to Foster Farms brand chicken

As of Oct. 11, 317 persons from 20 states and Puerto Rico have been infected with seven outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg.

Forty-two percent people who have become ill have been hospitalized, and no deaths have been reported, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of those who are ill, 73 percent, are from California.

Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback investigations conducted by local, state, and federal officials indicate that eating Foster Farms brand chicken is the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections, according to the CDC.

On Oct. 7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a Public Health Alert due to concerns that illness caused by Salmonella Heidelberg was associated with chicken products produced by Foster Farms at three facilities in California.

In the alert, the USDA-FSIS said, at this point in the investigation, it was unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period. However, the agency did say that raw products from the plants in question bear one of the plant numbers inside a USDA mark of inspection or elsewhere on the package:

  • “P6137”
  • “P6137A”
  • “P7632”

The products were mainly distributed to retail outlets in California, Oregon, and Washington state.

On Oct. 7, USDA-FSIS notified Foster Farms of the intent to withhold the marks of inspection and suspend the assignment of inspectors at the three plants in California unless the firm submitted plans to prevent the persistent recurrence of Salmonella contamination.

The investigation is ongoing, said the CDC, adding USDA-FSIS is prepared to take additional actions or expand the investigation based on new evidence.

The outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg are resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics, the CDC said. This antibiotic resistance may be associated with an increased risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals.

Since it’s not unusual for raw poultry from any producer to have Salmonella bacteria, the CDC and USDA-FSIS recommend consumers follow food safety tips to prevent Salmonella infection from raw poultry produced by Foster Farms or any other brand.

On Oct. 10, USDA-FSIS announced that Foster Farms submitted and carried out immediate changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations.

No Foster Farms recall, but two companies recall its products

This is the second outbreak of Salmonella in Foster Farms products in a year. The company hasn’t issued a recall in either case, rather is relying on informing consumers on how to cook raw chicken so any possible pathogens are destroyed.

On Oct. 8, The Kroger Co. – including Fred Meyer, Fry's, King Soopers/City Market, Ralphs, Food 4 Less, Smith's, and QFC – responded to the USDA-FSIS public health alert on Salmonella Heidelberg by removing products from the three plants from sale. The USDA-FSIS hasn’t linked other Foster Farms facilities to the outbreak.

On Oct. 12, USDA-FSIS announced Costco’s El Camino Real store in San Francisco, Calif., is recalling 9,043 units – about 39,755 lbs. – of rotisserie chicken products that may be contaminated with a strain of Salmonella Heidelberg.

The products included in this recall are:

  • 8,730 “Kirkland Signature Foster Farms” rotisserie chickens.
  • 313 total units of “Kirkland Farm” rotisserie chicken soup, rotisserie chicken leg quarters, and rotisserie chicken salad.

Consumer Reports calls for recall

As part of its testing program of the safety of meat and poultry, Consumer Reports found a strain of Salmonella Heidelberg in a Foster Farms raw chicken sample that matched one of the strains associated with the current illness outbreak. 

USDA-FSIS has oversight over meat and poultry production in the United States, however, they don’t have authority to mandate a recall, except if a particular food is directly identified as making someone sick. To date, USDA-FSIS hasn’t requested a voluntary recall, and Consumer Reports, is calling on them to do so.

“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, Ph.D., 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,” Rangan said. “Foster Farms has a responsibility to public health to take this step.”

Copyright 2013, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist

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