A coalition of consumer groups has demanded that the U.S. Department of Agriculture ask chicken producer Foster Farms to recall chicken products from three central California processing plants that have been linked to an ongoing Salmonella outbreak. At least 317 people in 20 states have been sickened in the outbreak since March.
The Safe Food Coalition (SFC), a collection of eight consumer groups, addressed a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday requesting that the agency ask for the poultry producer’s recall. The letter also suggested seven steps for the agency to “strengthen its regulatory program.”
“We appreciate that in the absence of a definitive link between illnesses and specific product, FSIS took action by issuing a public health alert to notify the public about Foster Farms’ association to the outbreak,” the SFC wrote. “However, considering the number of people sickened by this outbreak, the high hospitalization rate, the antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella, FSIS’ testing results in the plants, and the fact that the outbreak is ongoing, we question why a recall did not occur.”
At least 42 percent of outbreak victims have been hospitalized, while the average hospitalization rate for Salmonella Heidelberg outbreaks sits at around 20 percent.
Through testing at the implicated production plants, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service additionally found that nearly 25 percent of samples were positive for Salmonella. The agency has set a standard of Salmonella on up to 7.5 percent of whole chicken carcasses, but it does not have a standard on the books for chicken pieces.
Last week, USDA announced that it would not shut down the Foster Farms plants, reporting satisfaction with food-safety changes the company had made at its plants in Fresno and Livingston. The agency had earlier threatened to suspend operations if the company did not implement immediate corrective actions.
Among its seven suggestions, the SFC wrote that the USDA “should immediately declare antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella as adulterants.” Investigators found that a number of Salmonella strains involved in the outbreak were resistant to common antibiotics – a slowly growing trend in Salmonella.
The classification of “adulterant” by USDA standards is reserved for substances or organisms that are illegal to ship in a given food item. For example, USDA has given adulterant classifications to E. coli O157:H7 and six other strains of toxin-producing E. coli when found in ground beef.
Since a 1974 D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, USDA has held the position that because Salmonella contaminates so many foods, it would be unjustifiable to single out the meat industry in declaring Salmonella an adulterant.
In an interview last week with the trade publication MeatingPlace, USDA Assistant Administrator for FSIS Field Operations Daniel Engeljohn explained that E. coli was considered an adulterant in ground beef at a time when it appeared to be emerging as a more virulent pathogen than anything known before.
“We also knew consumer preference was preparation of ground beef products in a manner that would not eliminate the pathogen,” he added. In other words, most people did not cook their hamburgers to an internal temperature of 155 degrees F, the temperature necessary to kill E. coli.
By contrast, USDA says, American consumers know to cook poultry to temperatures that would kill Salmonella.
The coalition’s other suggestions include requiring poultry plants to reassess their hazard analysis plans for Salmonella, publishing a Salmonella performance standard for raw chicken parts, and seeking authority from Congress for enforceable performance standards.
The Safe Food Coalition consists of eight consumer interest organizations, including Consumers Union, Food & Water Watch, and the Government Accountability Project.© Food Safety News