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.