Internal emails from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) made public earlier this month tell some of the story behind the agency’s attempt to recall Foster Farms products linked to an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg in the months before it finally did so in July 2014. The latest batch of FSIS emails provided to Food & Water Watch in response to the group’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request indicate that agency staff had found a “compelling link” between a sickened consumer and products from Foster Farms. An Oct. 28, 2013, email sent by FSIS public health advisor Dr. Uday Dessai read:
“The specific product identified is a boneless skinless chicken thigh product. It was collected at P6137A but was produced from source materials that originated from P7632 [a Foster Farms facility in Fresno, CA] (slaughtered on 9/9/2013). StephanieDC [Stephanie Defibaugh-Chavez] had suggested in her Friday’s email to consider recalling all chicken products (including parts and whole chicken!) produced from birds slaughtered on 9/9/2013 at P7632 . This was based on the fact that 11 total product –positives were produced from source materials that originated from P7632 (slaughtered on 9/9/2013 and includes a variety of parts and whole/rotisserie chicken.”
Food & Water Watch argued that it seemed FSIS had enough to institute a recall of Foster Farms chicken if internal staff members were suggesting it. “Why it took so long for FSIS and Foster Farms to take action to prevent further illnesses is still baffling to us,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “These documents show that some staff at FSIS wanted to protect consumers from further exposure to potentially dangerous chicken, but their bosses were too timid to do so.” “Over the course of this outbreak, FSIS conducted well over 100 traceback investigations, and in each one our investigators worked tirelessly and aggressively to establish the direct and conclusive link needed to request a recall,” an FSIS spokesperson told Food Safety News in response to the published emails and Food & Water Watch’s statements. The emails show a “snapshot” of the agency’s work but aren’t the whole story, the agency spokesperson noted. “In this instance, our epidemiologists were hopeful about a promising lead, but as seen in later emails, the evidence did not come together to support requesting a recall,” FSIS said. One of the “over 100 traceback investigations” that has gotten a lot of media attention was that of Rick Schiller, who was severely sickened by Salmonella after eating Foster Farms chicken in September 2013. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested the unopened package of chicken Schiller still had in his freezer, but the Salmonella collected from it and from Schiller did not match. The evidence FSIS needs to consider a product adulterated and therefore appropriate to request a recall is a direct link between a case patient and a specific product produced at a specific place and time. Neither Schiller’s case nor the one referenced in the emails provided such a link. It wasn’t until July 2014 that FSIS had exactly what it needed to request a recall. FSIS did issue a public health warning about Foster Farms products in early October 2013. Soon after, the agency also told the company that it would withdraw inspectors from its three California plants in Livingston and Fresno — effectively shutting them down — because of poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary food contact surfaces and direct product contamination. The company responded with “immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations.” The Livingston plant was temporarily shut down in January 2014 for a cockroach infestation. Removing inspectors is a strong action because it has even more of an impact on a company’s bottom line that a recall of specific products. It means a company can’t legally distribute any of the facility’s products until problems are addressed. But “what about the contaminated product that was still in commerce?” countered Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch. “At the time these emails were written, 258 consumers had already reported illnesses,” he said. “The outbreak continued another nine months and another 376 got sick.” More could have been done to prevent those 376 illnesses, but “the agency was too afraid of being sued,” Corbo said. Food & Water Watch said the situation presented in the FSIS emails demonstrates the need for Congress to pass the Pathogen Reduction and Testing Reform Act re-introduced last month by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY). The bill, first proposed by the pair in June 2014, would revise the official definition of “adulterated” so that USDA would have explicit authority to recall meat, poultry and egg products that contain microbial pathogens associated with serious illness or death, or are resistant to two or more antibiotics critically important for human medicine. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has introduced similar legislation in the other chamber to give the USDA mandatory recall authority over meat and poultry.