West coast poultry producer Foster Farms made headlines on Monday evening after the partially operational U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an outbreak of Salmonella linked to chicken grown by the firm. At least 278 individuals have fallen ill in 17 states, mainly in California, after mishandling or undercooking the contaminated raw chicken meat, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a press release following the announcement, the farm noted that it was not recalling any of its chicken products from the three central California processing facilities tied to the outbreak. Instead, it was opting to implement a number of additional food safety practices that it previously worked into a facility in western Washington state that was linked to a Salmonella outbreak earlier this year that sickened 134.
When many foods get tied to a multi-state Salmonella outbreak, the manufacturer initiates a swift recall and performs tracebacks through the supply chain in an effort to remove contaminated goods from the marketplace. When fresh chicken products appear to cause outbreaks, however, they are rarely subject to such recalls.
What makes chicken different is the fact that certain pathogens, particularly Salmonella and Campylobacter, have become especially prevalent on chicken. Federal laws allow up to 7.5 percent of chicken carcasses to be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.
Unlike with E. coli in ground beef — which the USDA considers an illegal adulterant and cannot legally be shipped from a facility — the onus for eliminating Salmonella and other pathogens from chicken falls on the shoulders of the consumer. When it comes to chicken, consumers are expected and advised to never eat it raw, cooking it to at least 165 degrees internally.
In fact, all packages of raw chicken products are required to outline safe handling practices, which include keeping the product refrigerated and washing any utensils, hands, and surfaces that might have touched the raw meat to avoid cross-contamination.
Perpetual Salmonella infections
Approximately 42,000 cases of Salmonella get reported in the U.S. each year, and the CDC estimates more than a million cases go unreported. Those cases are coming from a variety of sources, including raw chicken, peanut butter, eggs, or pet hedgehogs and turtles.
With so many cases occurring on a regular basis, state epidemiologists work to interview infected individuals and try to determine where clusters may appear in situations where several people who contracted Salmonella ate the same food — or bought the same pets.
“We’re always looking to see if there are links between the cases,” said Oregon State Epidemiologist Dr. Katrina Hedberg. “There are always different ongoing sources of Salmonella, and sometimes there’s an increased bump in cases and we can identify the common source.”
In this case, investigators in California saw a bump in cases that they eventually traced back to the three Californian Foster Farms facilities at the center of this outbreak.
Hedberg said the current Foster Farms outbreak exceeded the typical rate of Salmonella cases likely to come from raw poultry, suggesting there may be an underlying problem at the facilities in question.
“No one decided to start eating their chicken breasts raw,” Hedberg said. “Consumers have known for a long time to cook their chicken well, so something may be going on in these plants — otherwise we wouldn’t have seen this outbreak.”
The current outbreak has affected at least 278 people, with illnesses dating back as far as early March 2013:
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