Americans celebrated their freedom over the Fourth of July weekend in part by eating an estimated 750 million pounds of chicken, but they may have missed major developments in the paradox that is Foster Farms. What happened? After eight months and 26 days since an ever-expanding multistate outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg began, Foster Farms announced on July 3 it was for the first time recalling a large amount of chicken products — more than 1 million pounds — that may have been contaminated with the pathogen. Within hours after the Foster Farms recall was announced by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the ongoing outbreak had again expanded to 621 persons infected in 29 states and Puerto Rico. Why no recall until now? USDA’s food safety unit had not previously established a direct link between the ongoing outbreak, which had hit 574 cases as of May 27, nor a specific Foster Farms product or production time frame. Nor was there a recall in an earlier 2013 outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg associated with Foster Farms that ran from February through July of that year, sickening 124 people mostly from Washington and Oregon. Foster Farms declined to issue recalls based on circumstantial evidence, even though FSIS put out a public health alert and threatened to order a halt to the company’s poultry production unless it took steps to reduce its Salmonella rates on raw chicken parts. How was a specific link found? As part of the ongoing investigation, CDC notified FSIS about a specific illness of Salmonella Heidelberg on June 23 that was determined to have involved consumption of a boneless skinless chicken breast product from Foster Farms. The epidemiological and traceback investigation was able to connect the illness in California — where 73 percent of all the illnesses have been occurring — to an onset date of May 5, 2014, and a specific production lot. What exactly did Foster Farms recall? Fresh chicken products, easily more than 1 million pounds, sold under the Foster Farms or private label brands with a “use or freeze by” date ranging from March 16 through March 31, 2014, and Sunland chicken products with “best by” dates from March 7 through March 11, 2014, were recalled. The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “P6137,” “P6137A,” or “P7632” inside the USDA mark of inspection. The chicken products were produced from March 7 through March 13, 2014. The recalled chicken was sent to Costco, Foodmaxx, Kroger, Safeway and other retail outlets and distribution centers in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Little, if any, of these particular chicken products were still for sale at the time of the recall, but FSIS said consumers should check their home freezers. What about the outbreak? It continues, but CDC’s experts think it is slowing from a peak period during February and March. Between the two official CDC reports on May 27 and July 4, the case count grew by 47. (Food Safety News did our own count on June 24, reporting when the total topped 600.) What’s the paradox about Foster Farms? The politically connected family-owned California company has endured a storm of criticism for not issuing a recall earlier, and its inaction on that front no doubt has at least temporarily damaged its brand. But Foster Farms has not just been standing around. It turned heads in the industry last month when it used its 75th anniversary to announce that it has found ways to cut the incidence of Salmonella to just 2 percent. Would that be significant? Both industry and independent researchers agree that Salmonella (and Campylobacter) are rampant in raw chicken, especially ground chicken and chicken parts. Only by cooking chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F can you be sure it is safe to eat. Dr. James Marsden, the Kansas State University Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety, noted that the USDA benchmark for Salmonella was 25 percent as recently as 2011 and 2012. So, yes, raw chicken parts 98-percent free of Salmonella would be an accomplishment, and that’s what Foster Farms is claiming. “It’s also important to note that Foster Farms is sharing detailed information about the interventions they have employed to competitors, retailers and government officials ‘in the interest of helping to create a safer food supply across the nation,’” Marsden wrote recently on Meatingplace. Marsden addes that he hopes “USDA pays close attention” because “Foster Farms is on to something.”