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Publisher’s Platform: If I Were the Chairman of Foster Farms

Opinion

I would chop off the head of (fire) young Ron Foster, or at least clip his beak (find a different spokesperson), despite him being the president of the company founded by his grandparents, for allowing our chicken to sicken hundreds – likely thousands – of our valued customers.

Honestly, Mr. Foster is simply not up to being the “cock of the walk” of one to the largest chicken companies in the world.  Perhaps Salmonella-tainted chicken was tolerable two generations ago when it was not so routinely mass-produced and riddled with antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella, not to mention Campylobacter, and when eating out was a rarity and one parent likely stayed home to make sure the chicken was well-cooked and did not cross-contaminate the kitchen.

Mr. Foster, welcome to 2013.

However, here is what Mr. Foster does seem to find acceptable: From May 2012 to April 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a total of 134 individuals infected with an outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg from 13 states. Thirty-one percent of those sickened were hospitalized. Collaborative investigative efforts of local, state, and federal public health and regulatory agencies indicated that Foster Farms-brand chicken was the most likely source of this outbreak.

Then, from February 2013 to October 2013, CDC reported a total of 338 individuals infected with an outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg from 20 states and Puerto Rico. Forty percent of those sickened were hospitalized. Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback investigations conducted by local, state, and federal officials indicate that consumption of Foster Farms-brand chicken was the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections. According to CDC, for every one person who is a stool-culture confirmed positive victim of Salmonella in the United States, there a multiple of 38.5 who are also sick but remain uncounted (See AC Voetsch, “FoodNet estimate of the burden of illness caused by nontyphoidal Salmonella infections in the United States,” Clinical Infectious Diseases 2004; 38 (Suppl 3): S127-34).

Mr. Foster’s response: “We truly regret any illness associated with our products.”

“Our brand was built on trust and I think we violated … our consumers’ trust. And, it’s now our responsibility to earn it back and we plan on doing that by having a gold standard chicken in the market,” he added.

Yet, Mr. Foster also argued that Foster Farms exceeded the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) “performance standard” of 7.5 percent of Salmonella on whole chicken carcasses. However, tests by FSIS after the Foster Farms chicken was processed showed a 25-percent prevalence of Salmonella.

Relying on the fact that our government is “chicken” about finding Salmonella – at least antibiotic-resistant Salmonella – to be problematic on our birds reminds me of my dad reminding me that just because the flock is “stupid, lazy and/or scared” does not mean you have to be, too.

Mr. Foster’s apology and talk of a gold standard are grand sentiments, but, in the same breath, Mr. Foster refused to withdraw or recall tainted chicken from the market. He put the blame squarely on our customers and not on himself by stating, “Tainted birds met or exceeded industry standards for Salmonella, and that the firm’s products were still safe to eat if handled properly and cooked to a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.”

The response to Mr. Foster’s sentiments:

  • Mexico has banned imports of Foster Farms chicken from three plants implicated in a Salmonella outbreak.
  • Foster Farms has suffered a 25-percent drop in sales since the outbreak was announced.
  • Kroger Co., which operates Ralphs and Food 4 Less, has already pulled chicken from the three plants from its stores.
  • Costco also issued a recall of rotisserie Foster Farms chicken from a South San Francisco store after a consumer reported falling ill from eating the cooked product.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to close the three Foster Farms plants, stating in a notice that officials had found a “high frequency of Salmonella positives and specifically a high frequency of one or more outbreak strains” in the three plants. The letters also cited “fecal material on carcasses” and “findings of poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary non food contact surfaces and direct product contamination” at the plants.

We should recall the product. We should set our standard to zero in the amount of pathogens (e.g., fecal bacteria) on our chicken. We should stop letting a government agency afraid of lawyers and lawsuits to allow for standards so low that its public health mission becomes a joke. We should do what grandpa and grandma Foster would likely have done when they started this business you inherited.

Cluck, cluck.

© Food Safety News
  • John Munsell

    Mr. Marler, USDA is your best friend! Why? Because they have zero desire to “Put you out of Business”. The agency’s slovenly attitude about ignoring ongoing fecal contamination of carcasses (poultry & beef), poor sanitation dressing procedures, insanitary food contact surfaces ad nauseum tacitly endorses unhealthy protocol at the largest abattoirs. And, how can USDA reassert its authority since HACCP’s advent? By its own admission, when plants had implemented HACCP, the agency promised to adopt a “Hands Off” role, it promised to no longer police the plants, as HACCP plants would now police themselves, and the agency would jettison its previous command-and-control authority. Thus, whenever the agency would attempt to implement enforcement actions against insanitary plants, USDA should expect legal actions from the impacted plant, and the agency should lose because of its pre-HACCP promises. They can’t have it both ways. The agency’s vaunted “Abundance of Caution” is actually an Abandance of Caution. The primary caution USDA utilizes is the avoidance of litigation. John Munsell

  • chefjoemccalister

    No mention that the Costco store in question admits they cross contaminated the product while in their facility, or the fact that the 25% contamination rate was on their “organic” chicken, which is not “allowed” to have the same cleaning procedures as the other chickens, the fact that there are reported illnesses in states and Puerto Rico where FF is not available, and the fact that now there are new batches out and the “tainted” batches are out of the stores? Serve this chicken to my family, friends and at my restaurant and there has never been any issues, but I know how to cook and handle chicken. I have followed this story extensively and your article has no merit. Kroger stores are selling the chicken again, just bought some yesterday at Ralphs.

  • yogachick

    So glad I am vegan!

  • Dribble Dribble

    “Zero Pathogens”? Get A Grip. Obviously written by someone who is NOT in the business in any meaningful way.