After 11 years at the helm of California-based poultry producer Foster Farms, Ron Foster announced last week that he was stepping down as president and CEO of the company his grandparents started 75 years ago. Over those 11 years, the company has attracted a lot of attention related to Salmonella, both good and bad. Under Foster’s leadership, the company has significantly reduced the presence of Salmonella in its plants to the point that it leads the industry with just 5-percent contamination on chicken parts, compared to an industry average closer to 20 percent. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) recently lauded Foster Farms for its commitment to food safety and customers, and in July, the city council of Livingston, CA, where the company is based, honored Foster with a key to the city. Foster Farms also happens to have made the most headlines for Salmonella on chicken in recent years. Since 2013, the company has been linked to two high-profile national Salmonella outbreaks, leading to almost 800 total confirmed cases. Those cases included some illnesses from antibiotic-resistant Salmonella, often considered to be more virulent than more common strains. (However, the most common antibiotics for treating Salmonella still worked in those cases.) Depending on whom you ask, Foster Farms may be either an industry leader hit with a run of bad luck, or a company with a track record of sickening consumers and withholding information on its efforts to control Salmonella. After the second outbreak was announced as over in July (on the company’s 75th anniversary), Foster Farms announced it was developing a $75-million program to fight Salmonella contamination in its plants. It even won some hard-earned praise from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Foster Farms has implemented and continues to utilize multiple interventions to reduce Salmonella throughout its entire poultry production process,” CDC said earlier this year. “[The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service] has determined that process control measures undertaken by the firm to consistently minimize Salmonella contamination of raw chicken have been successful.” Media representatives for Foster Farms did not respond to requests from Food Safety News for comment, but, according to The Poultry Site, some of the measures to be taken by the company’s new “bird health program” include:
- No use of antibiotics for the purpose of growth promotion.
- No use of antibiotics that are considered critical to human medicine, such as cephalosporins or fluoroquinolones.
- When antibiotics are administered to a flock, the duration is limited and all recommended withdrawal times are followed prior to processing.
- Veterinary treatment of birds is developed in consultation with, and overseen by, a company veterinarian.
The company stated that it brought on five leading food-safety consultants and is planning to share the results of its findings from the new food safety program with other poultry producers to improve Salmonella contamination industry-wide. Leading producers in the beef industry began similar efforts to share food safety information in the 1990s — an effort that experts say has helped lead to significant declines in E. coli contamination throughout that sector. One of the consultants brought on by Foster Farms is Dr. Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, who told Food Safety News that Foster Farms’ $75-million Salmonella-control program separates it from the rest of the industry “in a big way.” “They’re applying a battery of interventions at a lot of levels,” Doyle said. “Some of them look quite promising. Quite frankly, the numbers and percentages of Salmonella are plummeting.” But until the public sees exactly what kind of food-safety information Foster Farms shares with competitors, it’s too early to label the company a food-safety leader, said Christopher Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. “We just don’t have enough information about what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis to say they’re an industry leader,” Waldrop said. “They had those two big outbreaks and now they say they’ve put out a lot of interventions, but they’re not specific about what those interventions are.” Waldrop said that it will take several years worth of data on the Salmonella-reduction strategies to truly determine where Foster Farms stands compared to other poultry producers. Doyle said that Foster Farms is still collecting data it hopes to share with others in the industry, and that the company is “making great progress.” He predicts that Foster Farms will become the poster child for Salmonella control and that the industry will grow to become more open about food safety, modeling itself more closely after the beef industry. Waldrop, however, said he would wait to see Foster Farms release their food-safety data. “If you really want to become a leader, you need to become more transparent,” he said. “Share what you’re doing. Move the industry forward. That’s what we look for in a leader.”