by Lynne Terry
USDA repeatedly blinked when facing salmonella outbreaks involving Foster Farms
Over the course of a decade, hundreds of people from Eugene to Baker City to Portland and Seattle were struck by bouts of food poisoning so severe they fled to their doctors or emergency rooms for treatment.
They had no idea what made them sick. But federal regulators did.
Oregon and Washington public health officials repeatedly told the U.S. Department of Agriculture they had linked salmonella outbreaks in 2004, 2009 and 2012 to Foster Farms chicken.
State officials pushed federal regulators to act, but salmonella-tainted chicken flowed into grocery stores, first in the Northwest, then across the country. Oregon investigators became so familiar with the culprit they gave it a name: the Foster Farms strain.
The outbreaks tied by state health officials to Foster Farms first occurred in Oregon and Washington. Then in 2012, illnesses spread to almost a dozen states. The next year, a new outbreak emerged that sickened more than 600 people across the country.
Much has been written about that last 16-month ordeal and the USDA’s slow response. But the way the federal agency handled it was not an isolated case, an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive has found.
Time after time dating to 2004, Oregon and Washington officials alerted the USDA’s food safety agency about salmonella illnesses, but the federal government chose not to warn the public or ask Foster Farms for a recall.
With no reason to worry, people kept eating contaminated chicken.
Foster Farms processes hundreds of thousands of birds a day, and only a small fraction of its customers ever got sick.
But from 2004 through 2014, state or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials identified nearly 1,000 infections they said were linked to Foster Farms chicken in four separate outbreaks. About 300 of those cases occurred in Oregon and Washington. The overall toll was possibly much higher. The CDC estimates that for every confirmed salmonella infection, more than 29 go unreported.
The Oregonian/OregonLive reviewed thousands of pages of government records related to Foster Farms and interviewed dozens of health officials, inspectors, food safety experts and federal managers for this story. The records and interviews reveal for the first time an agency that over a 10-year span had repeatedly failed to protect consumers when confronting one of the nation’s largest poultry processors.
During that time, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued hundreds of citations at the company’s sprawling plant in Kelso, Washington. But the agency allowed the plant to operate even though people kept getting sick.
Since the last outbreak ended, no known illnesses have been tied to the company, the largest poultry processor in the West. Foster Farms says it now has one of the lowest salmonella rates in the industry, having invested tens of millions of dollars to improve its plants and procedures.
It’s a different story at the USDA.
The agency has boosted its food safety budget and has made some strides to protect consumers, including introducing stricter standards for salmonella and ordering more random tests.
But many of the same practices and cultural hurdles that contributed to the way the agency handled public health concerns during that 10-year span remain in place today.
USDA officials are so worried about being sued by companies that they’ve set a high bar for evidence, even rejecting samples of tainted chicken that state health agencies believed would help clinch their case, records and interviews show.
Union officials said the government inspectors they represent are pressured to go easy on food processors, citing one notable case in which the USDA transferred an inspector after Foster Farms complained he wrote too many citations. And after strong pushback from Foster Farms, the USDA retracted a reference in a public document that unequivocally linked the company to illnesses in 2004, a move that baffled state health officials who described the investigation as “rock solid.”
The agency requested only one recall from Foster Farms, about a decade after the first illnesses in Oregon and Washington, even though Oregon health officials repeatedly found the outbreak strain in random retail samples of the company’s chicken from 2004 through 2012, records show.
Al Almanza, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food safety, acknowledged that the agency often faces criticism for being too slow with health alerts and recalls.
“We alert the public, and we alert the industry in a timely manner, and we try to be as quick as we can about it,” Almanza said. “Anything I can do to prevent one single person from getting sick, I’m going to do it. … I think we’ve gotten better with it over the last seven years.”
Ron Foster, president and chief executive officer of Foster Farms, did not respond to questions from reporters, and attempts to visit the Kelso plant were denied. Instead, the company’s public relations firm issued two statements to The Oregonian/OregonLive, and one of its lawyers responded to written questions.
“Foster Farms food safety performance record at its Kelso plant, measured by overall compliance with USDA regulations and effectiveness in controlling salmonella, is among the best in the industry,” the statement read in part. “In 2014 at the Kelso plant, our USDA compliance record was over 99 percent.”
Foster Farms also denies that it was ever part of an outbreak in 2004, although health officials, including a USDA spokeswoman, still dispute the company’s assertion.
Foster Farms is not the only company that’s struggled with salmonella. It’s an industry-wide problem. Every year, more than 1 million people are infected with salmonella in the United States.
oah Craten was one of the most vulnerable. Only 18 months old, he developed a high fever one night in late September 2013 at his home outside Phoenix, Arizona. His parents gave him Tylenol and tucked him into bed. They had no idea the USDA had been told by the CDC nearly three months earlier about an outbreak linked to Foster Farms chicken, a family staple.
Doctors ran tests but could not figure out what was wrong, said his mother, Amanda Craten.
Noah’s condition worsened and he was hospitalized. He wobbled when he walked, the left side of his face drooped and words stumbled out of the side of his mouth, his mother said.
Bacteria had pooled on his brain.
“We were shocked and scared to death,” Craten said. “We had no idea what was going on.”
Surgeons sliced into Noah’s skull to ease the pressure. DNA lab tests confirmed he was infected with one of the salmonella Heidelberg strains in the Foster Farms outbreak, according to state health records obtained by the family’s attorney.
Noah survived, but his ordeal is far from over. His mother said his left eyebrow sags. His left eye blinks rapidly. He also has cysts on his brain that must be monitored. If they grow, they’ll have to be removed.
Dealing with an outbreak
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service licenses about 300 poultry plants across the country and is supposed to protect consumers by ensuring that meat, poultry and processed eggs are safe to eat.
Poultry, a prime culprit in salmonella cases, is the deadliest food Americans eat. The USDA has not banned salmonella, unlike virulent strains of E. coli, but it has set limits for how much is allowed on raw poultry. Even so, the agency relies on consumers to kill the bacteria during cooking.
When an outbreak occurs, a whole set of regulatory agencies are supposed to kick into action.
State and local health officials, along with the CDC, investigate. If they find a cause, they report it to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Epidemiological investigations are often difficult affairs, a mix of science, deduction and judgment. Nailing the culprit is usually not clear-cut. Scientists conduct lab tests, interview patients, gather shopping receipts and connect the dots. The USDA can request a recall, seize contaminated meat or poultry or shut plants down.
But there are cracks in the system. Contamination often starts on the farm, where the Food Safety and Inspection Service lacks authority. Contaminated birds then head to the slaughterhouse where bacteria can spread.
The USDA’s Almanza said that when the agency has solid evidence in an outbreak, it first alerts the company, not the public. In the Foster Farms cases, the agency did not notify consumers throughout the first three outbreaks. Instead, records and interviews show that, as a rule, the USDA waited for evidence it believed would stand up to a potential court challenge before taking significant enforcement action.
Almanza defended the USDA’s record, noting that overall salmonella cases dropped last year. The agency also has announced tighter standards that are set to take effect later this year.
“I don’t think we get credit for all the positive work we do,” he said.
Foster Farms dominates the West
Foster Farms, based in Livingston, California, is known for clever commercials touting its fresh chicken and featuring a pair of scruffy birds.
The family owned company also has operations in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana. The first three outbreaks were traced by state health officials to chicken from the company’s Kelso plant, its biggest in the Northwest.
The plant, built in 1998, is larger than two football fields and equipped with stainless steel conveyor belts, evisceration machines, sprayers and chillers. About 600 employees work two shifts, processing up to 126,000 birds a day.
The carcasses are blasted with antimicrobial chemicals to reduce contamination, but time after time bacteria slipped through, USDA records show.
An inspector identified a cluster of salmonella-tainted samples in 2001 that corresponded with sanitation issues at the plant. The next year, Kelso failed a routine set of salmonella tests. The year after that, 44 of 53 samples of ground chicken were contaminated with salmonella, according to USDA records. Foster Farms then stopped producing ground chicken at Kelso.
A routine USDA inspection of the plant a month later found no major problems.
Meat and poultry plants are allowed to devise their own food safety plans, identifying and monitoring potential sources of contamination. But it’s up to the USDA to hold them accountable. At Kelso, four USDA inspectors are stationed on the evisceration line, each expected to examine about 35 birds a minute.
All poultry plants test frequently for harmful microbes and, upon request, they must share results related to their food safety plans with the USDA. In a statement, Foster Farms said it conducts more tests than the USDA requires and has set an industry standard for low salmonella rates on chicken parts, less than 5 percent.
That’s far better than the new voluntary USDA limit, which will be slightly more than 15 percent when it goes into effect later this year.
Since 1998, the agency’s salmonella testing has involved only carcasses — not the breasts, thighs, legs and wings that most people eat. It has conducted one test a day for 51 consecutive days every year or two.
The USDA recently changed testing to one carcass a week year-round at poultry plants, including Kelso. The switch was designed to make it easier to notice spikes in salmonella levels throughout the year.
Even so, relying on 52 tests a year in a plant that churns through 140 birds a minute is still inadequate, said Stan Painter, chairman of the USDA inspectors union.
“It’s not enough,” Painter said. “One chicken sets the standard for almost three quarters of a million a week.”
Critics say the system also gives industry a wide berth to maneuver around regulations.
When food safety or other problems arise, inspectors are supposed to document a violation in a noncompliance report. The company is expected to address the issue on the spot. If a spray nozzle is clogged, plant employees must replace it or clean it out. Carcasses with fecal matter are pitched or trimmed.
But the USDA gives processors time to fix the root cause of a problem. Inspectors say months can pass in the meantime, with plants unable or unwilling to correct the issue.
More than a half dozen inspectors told The Oregonian/OregonLive they felt pressure from USDA managers to keep production moving. They said they believed they could be suspended or reassigned for causing interruptions.
Citations also can languish for months on appeal.
Consider one example at Kelso. In 2006, the plant received several citations for carcasses that were too warm, giving bacteria a chance to grow. The plant appealed at least four violations issued that winter. But it took the USDA six months to reject the appeals. In the meantime, the plant operated as usual, receiving additional citations for the same problem.
At Kelso, inspectors documented repeated problems. In early 2007, for example, a USDA official tallied 43 noncompliance reports, including 32 for “fecal failures” and other recurring food safety problems.
During the year of the first outbreak, Kelso inspectors wrote more than 200 noncompliance reports, enough for a USDA official to note there were “plenty of NRs” to warrant a threat to suspend operations at the plant.
But the USDA took no significant enforcement action until Oregon and Washington health officials sounded the alarm.
State health officials spring into action
In August 2004, an Oregon epidemiologist noticed a cluster of infections involving a salmonella Heidelberg strain that he had not seen before. Emilio DeBess, the state public health veterinarian, looked for a DNA link in retail sampling of meat and poultry.
He found only one: Foster Farms chicken.
DeBess interviewed a patient who had bought and cooked Foster Farms chicken before getting sick. He retraced her steps, going to the same Costco in Tigard and buying a similar package of Foster Farms chicken processed at Kelso.
“I picked up a couple of chickens, just like she did, but instead of taking them home and cooking them, I took them to the lab,” DeBess said.
The odds of finding the same strain were long, said Dr. Paul Cieslak, medical director of communicable diseases and immunizations at the Oregon Public Health Division.
“I thought he was nuts,” Cieslak said.
But Oregon health officials said they found a connection: The chicken was contaminated with the same strain of salmonella Heidelberg.
In Washington state, health officials said they also identified people sickened by the same strain. Both states used a lab test that identifies subtypes based on their DNA fingerprint. The states relied on a two-enzyme match, employing a test used by the CDC.
As the investigation advanced, Washington epidemiologists identified more cases. At least three people, including a child who was hospitalized, got sick after eating chicken that was bought directly from the Kelso plant. Washington’s lab did not find the same salmonella strain in the leftover chicken, but a federal lab did, according to a Washington state health report and a USDA letter.
Confident Foster Farms was the source of the illnesses, DeBess called Bob O’Connor, the company’s food safety chief.
“I basically wanted to have a conversation with him, veterinarian to veterinarian, and say, ‘Look, we’ve had all these cases,’ ” DeBess said.
Oregon shared its investigation with Foster Farms, even turning over bacteria that had been cultured in the state lab.
The company’s approach was to fight, DeBess said. O’Connor declined to comment.
Foster Farms hired experts who challenged the states’ conclusions, later calling the cases “sporadic” in a letter to the USDA. The company’s analysis disputed the test results and questioned why state officials were re-interviewing patients to inquire about chicken consumption: “There are no facts at this time that link the illnesses to poultry consumption of any kind.”
“They certainly didn’t want to do a recall,” Cieslak said. “They wanted to question our results.”
In October, DeBess notified the USDA.
“Our job is prevention,” DeBess said. “We want to make sure they take all the steps necessary to eliminate any products that they have at the plant and prevent people from getting infected in Oregon and Washington and anywhere else.”
FOSTER FARMS SALMONELLA OUTBREAKS, 2004-2013
USDA gets involved
A USDA official noted in an email that inspectors at Kelso had written enough citations to warrant a threat to suspend production.
Bacteria also had repeatedly turned up in tests. During one stretch from 2003 to early 2005, the plant had more samples tainted with salmonella Heidelberg than “any meat or poultry plant in the United States,” an agency assistant administrator, William Smith, wrote in a letter.
The USDA began an investigation at Kelso, turning up five suspect samples of salmonella Heidelberg.
“It appears that we have further evidence of S. Heidelberg in this plant and that the patterns match cases from the earlier clusters,” Dr. David Goldman, an assistant administrator, wrote in an email.
The agency threatened to suspend operations at the plant in late January 2005, three months after Oregon notified the USDA of the outbreak. During that time, millions of chickens at Kelso were slaughtered, processed, packaged and shipped.
The USDA’s warning notice said salmonella had turned up at Kelso on “numerous occasions in November and December, 2004.”
“Through the establishment’s own microbial testing program, Foster Poultry Farms (in Kelso) has been aware of the salmonella problem as well as the S. Heidelberg quandary for the past two years,” the notice said.
On Jan. 28, the agency suspended operations at the Kelso plant.
Philip Derfler, deputy administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, described the shutdown as groundbreaking.
“That was the first time that anyone ever took action against salmonella in the way that we did,” Derfler said.
Public health officials were ecstatic. “A victory for public health,” a CDC epidemiologist wrote in an email to an Oregon official. “Now we await to see if illness numbers go down.”
The plant was closed at the start of a weekend while Foster Farms managers worked out a deal with the USDA to get workers back on line.
By Tuesday, operations were allowed to resume. USDA said the plant had to be operating to allow Foster Farms to enact reforms. The actions included trying to curb salmonella on farms.
DeBess was stunned. A plant of that size could take a week or more to thoroughly clean, USDA inspectors say.
“I would have expected a different response,” DeBess said. “The plant was contaminated with salmonella that’s potentially multidrug resistant. You have to start fresh. Close the plant, clean it up and start again.”
People kept getting sick. “The increase in salmonella Heidelberg cases is continuing into 2005,” a USDA email noted in March.
In response to the USDA’s enforcement actions at Kelso, Foster Farms sent an appeal to the agency disputing a tie between its products and illnesses.
The appeal said the agency “attempted to draw links between sporadic” illnesses and the company’s products that weren’t there and that the investigation lacked “scientific, statistical and epidemiological merit.”
The agency responded in a letter, saying there was “support of a direct link” between Foster Farms chicken bought from the Kelso plant and the illnesses. The USDA also questioned the testing method used by one of the experts hired by Foster Farms, saying it blurred the connection to salmonella rather than providing clarity.
“With all due respect, it seems that there is a difference of opinion on the subject between the experts that you have retained and the agency’s scientific experts,” the USDA letter said.
The agency, however, retracted one sentence linking Kelso unequivocally to the outbreak even though the letter said officials were “quite concerned” about illnesses in Oregon and Washington and conditions at the Kelso plant at the time.
A lawyer representing Foster Farms told The Oregonian/OregonLive in March that the company did not cause the 2004 outbreak. “Epidemiological study eliminated Foster Farms as the source of dozens of salmonella samples,” Carmine Zarlenga said in a letter.
Nevertheless, Oregon and Washington epidemiologists implicated Foster Farms in nearly 40 illnesses that year.
Independent epidemiologists interviewed by The Oregonian/OregonLive say it appeared that Oregon health officials had gathered convincing evidence.
“If you get the exact organism from an unopened package of the product and you have association with illness, that is virtual 100 percent proof,” said Mike Osterholm, a nationally respected epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota.
A USDA spokeswoman, Catherine Cochran, said the agency still believes Foster Farms was responsible for the 2004 illnesses, as do Oregon and Washington health officials.
DeBess was surprised the USDA had retracted a sentence unequivocally linking the company to the outbreak. “We thought we had a rock solid investigation,” DeBess said. “We did go the extra mile.”
Outbreak subsides, surges anew
When illnesses subsided that year, Oregon and Washington figured the outbreak was over. But in 2009, they were hit again with new illnesses.
They found the same strain had returned along with a close relative, which state investigators lumped together after analyzing their DNA fingerprints. Epidemiologists expect bacteria to mutate over time as they trade genetic material and evolve, which is what happened in the outbreaks, DeBess said.
Oregon and Washington again told the USDA.
DeBess found the strain in 11 retail samples of Foster Farms chicken in 2009 out of dozens of tests on various brands. The strain did not turn up in any other brand of chicken.
More cases emerged, spilling into 2010.
Nicola Marsden-Haug, then an epidemiologist at the Washington Department of Health, said a number of patients remembered eating Foster Farms chicken, or related brands, before getting sick.
“Foster Farms came up repeatedly,” Marsden-Haug said.
The USDA responded to the state investigations by checking Kelso’s latest salmonella test set. The plant had passed, so the USDA took no more action, according to a report by the Oregon Public Health Division.
DeBess was certain Foster Farms was the source. “There is no question in my mind,” he said.
The USDA told The Oregonian/OregonLive in a written response that “there was no outbreak recognized by CDC in 2009 that would warrant investigation of the Kelso plant,” adding in another response that “no definitive link to any brand or chicken product was made.”
The CDC usually gets involved in multistate outbreaks. But with the 2004 and 2009 illnesses focused in Oregon and Washington, state health officials led the investigations, said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s foodborne illness division.
“If they see they’ve got a problem, historically they’ve charged ahead,” Tauxe said, referring to Washington and Oregon. “I don’t think the CDC was particularly involved in managing either of those” investigations.
Cases continued into 2010 then dropped off, just as they had before.
But in 2012 a third outbreak surged in Oregon and Washington, sickening more people than ever. This time, cases spread beyond the Northwest, and the CDC got involved. It tallied more than 130 illnesses in 13 states.
The USDA sent investigators to Kelso. But the agency took no significant enforcement action, even though it was the third outbreak involving the same salmonella strain that Oregon authorities had found only in Foster Farms chicken during years of random sampling. Patient interviews and shopping receipts pointed to Foster Farms and, for the first time, health officials recovered leftover Foster Farms chicken from patients’ homes.
“We received four product samples from three different case patients and all four of them were positive for the salmonella Heidelberg strain matching the outbreak,” said Marsden-Haug of Washington state.
She said the packages came from the Kelso plant and, for the first time, a Foster Farms plant in Fresno, California.
Oregon and Washington pushed for a recall.
USDA reluctant to act
Agency emails indicate the USDA was wary of blaming Foster Farms.
A supervisor at the USDA’s district office in Denver questioned whether the salmonella test results were “necessarily the silver bullet” in an investigation. In a separate email a few minutes later: “Reason I ask is that apparently Foster Farms brought the heavy hitter law firm in. I don’t know the name but I understand they are not taking this lightly.”
The company hired Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz, a firm that includes a former USDA food safety chief, agency emails show.
The agency scrutinized evidence, including samples collected from the homes of patients in Washington. The USDA raised questions about the possibility of contamination between the time samples were collected from refrigerators and brought to the lab.
“They wanted to make sure that it was in the custody of an official person from the time it left the person’s home,” Marsden-Haug said. “We knew what happened, but we didn’t have anybody signing it off.”
Epidemiologists in both states were frustrated that the USDA did not request a recall despite evidence they thought was about as solid as it gets.
“It’s hard to believe that a product could be tampered with on the way here with the exact outbreak strain,” Marsden-Haug said. “We felt we had irrefutable evidence.”
But the standard the USDA has set for recalls made the burden of proof nearly impossible to meet, records and interviews show.
The USDA asks a company for a voluntary recall only when it obtains an unopened package of contaminated product from a patient’s refrigerator — complete with production and plant information on the label. The USDA can’t force a company to recall a product.
The agency requested one recall in the five biggest poultry outbreaks from 2011 through 2013, according to a Government Accountability Office report. In three others, companies took the initiative to get the food off the market. In the fifth outbreak, involving Foster Farms in 2012-13, no recall occurred.
The USDA declined to say how many times it has formally requested a recall in six other salmonella outbreaks dating to 2007. A spokesman said that when the agency presents evidence, companies almost always pull the suspect food.
It wasn’t until a fourth salmonella outbreak swept the country that the USDA found its silver bullet involving Foster Farms chicken. And that came only after a months-long examination of dozens of leads and a search for unopened, leftover chicken.
“We were able to make that definitive link to be able to put Foster Farms in that recall situation,” the USDA’s Almanza said.
Critics say the USDA should not insist upon a gold standard of evidence but should take the investigative results, including random retail sampling, into account.
Denis Stearns, a food safety professor and litigator in Seattle, said the agency’s bar for requesting a salmonella recall is “ridiculously high.”
The USDA did not warn the public about illnesses associated with Foster Farms chicken until the fourth outbreak. Even then, the alert came three months after the CDC told the USDA of the outbreak. The single Foster Farms recall came as illnesses were subsiding. The peak of the outbreak had occurred nearly 10 months earlier in mid-September 2013.
Almanza said that if the USDA warned consumers every time an item was suspected in an outbreak, “we’d be issuing public alerts very often.”
Between the time of the public health alert and the recall, more than 250 additional people got sick, the CDC said.
States left out of the loop
During the third outbreak, the USDA largely left state officials in the dark, even though they kept pressing for more information, public records show.
By December 2012, DeBess, Oregon’s lead investigator, was exasperated.
“There seems to be a silence regarding any investigation and the findings so far,” he wrote in an email to the CDC.
Two months later, Oregon and Washington health officials had seen enough. They issued their own public health alert about Foster Farms chicken. It urged consumers to cook poultry to 165 degrees to kill bacteria and avoid spreading the juices to other foods and surfaces in the kitchen.
The move was unprecedented in Oregon, which had never before warned consumers about potentially tainted food that was not being recalled.
Before the alert was sent, Oregon’s Public Health Division notified Foster Farms as a courtesy, sending the company the final copy before it went out to the news media.
Foster Farms responded the same day with its own release: “The safety and quality of our poultry products is Foster Farms’ utmost priority,” the company said on its website. “There is no recall in effect for any brand of chicken related to the Oregon Health Authority announcement as it is widely known that all raw chicken must be responsibly handled and properly prepared to ensure safety and quality.”
In 2014, after the 16-month outbreak ended, Foster Farms announced it had spent $75 million on a “multihurdle’ approach to reduce salmonella contamination at every stage of the process.
The company initially responded to requests for comment by issuing a general statement. But after The Oregonian/OregonLive emailed details of the story for a response, a lawyer for Foster Farms replied:
“To focus on an isolated set of facts or events without providing a broader context of long-term company performance, comparative industry performance, the meaning and intent of federal regulations and the scientific controversy associated with attribution creates an incomplete and potentially misleading representation of Foster Farms as a producer. During the period examined by The Oregonian, the USDA inspected and approved as wholesome all poultry produced at the Kelso plant. In any case of concern, the company has always addressed the situation to the full satisfaction of government agencies.”
Outbreak spreads across the country
Kelso was not the problem in the fourth outbreak, which emerged in March 2013. This time, the USDA pinpointed three Foster Farms plants in central California, including the Fresno operation that was involved in the 2012 outbreak.
Across the country, more than 630 patients got sick, including 4-year-old Lamis Rami Al Sabbagh of Fontana, California.
In March 2014, she ate kebabs made from Foster Farms chicken at a family barbecue. Nine days later, she was hospitalized with salmonella in her blood.
“That’s when the condition is serious,” said her mother, Sonia Al Sabbagh. “The bacteria gets in the blood and it can kill you.”
The USDA had issued a health alert about Foster Farms chicken five months earlier, but there had not been a recall. That wasn’t announced until nearly four months after Lamis got sick.
Her mother spent hours on the computer researching Foster Farms. In the process, she discovered there had been an outbreak the year before.
“I was beyond shocked,” Al Sabbagh said. “I’m mad at the company, Foster Farms. I’m mad at USDA for not caring about the quality of their food. I’m mad at everybody who should have taken responsibility for this.”
The USDA contends it is making strides.
“It has taken us a really long time to do something with salmonella — I concede that — but now it is our belief and it is our hope that we are starting to turn the corner,” said Derfler, the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s deputy administrator.
The USDA’s Almanza said the first-ever limit on salmonella in chicken parts, announced in January, would help prevent 50,000 illnesses annually nationwide.
But he left out a critical part: The agency said it would need as many as five years to hit that mark. In the meantime, thousands more are likely to get sick.
Foster Farms’ March 24 statement
Editor’s note: During the course of our investigation, Foster Farms sent two statements to The Oregonian/OregonLive this year. Both statements, the last sent in March and the first sent in January, appear here.
“For more than 75 years, the safety of our products — and the satisfaction of our consumers — has been central to everything we do at Foster Farms.
Our current food safety performance record, affirmed by the USDA, is the most accurate, credible assessment of our practices. To focus on an isolated set of facts or events without providing a broader context of long-term company performance, comparative industry performance, the meaning and intent of federal regulations, and the scientific controversy associated with attribution creates an incomplete and potentially misleading representation of Foster Farms as a producer. During the period examined by The Oregonian, the USDA inspected and approved as wholesome all poultry produced at the Kelso plant. In any case of concern, the company has always addressed the situation to the full satisfaction of government agencies.
Foster Farms’ food safety performance record at its Kelso plant, measured by overall compliance with USDA regulations and effectiveness in controlling Salmonella, is among the best in the industry. In 2014 at the Kelso plant, our USDA compliance record was over 99 percent. Foster Farms measures Salmonella prevalence at two points in production – during the first process with whole birds and during the second process with raw chicken parts. First process testing is required by the USDA. Second process testing is not required by the USDA, and Foster Farms conducts testing weekly. Foster Farms continues to maintain its commitment to a companywide Salmonella prevalence level of less than 5 percent, even while the USDA proposes a parts standard allowing 15.4 percent. This is a fivefold improvement over the 2011-2012 USDA industry benchmark of 25 percent.
Food safety is a complex issue that requires continuous improvement and vigilance among all food producers. Over the last two years, Foster Farms has intensified its Salmonella control program and invested $75 million toward food safety advances. Today, the company leads the industry in Salmonella control. Its efforts in controlling Salmonella have been recognized by the USDA, CDC and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a champion of food safety.
Thanks to the more than 30 family farmers who supply us with chicken in the Pacific Northwest and the dedicated employees at our Kelso facility, Foster Farms is producing some of the safest chicken available in the United States.”
Foster Farms’ Jan. 13 statement
“Foster Farms is committed to the highest levels of food safety and regrets any illness that may have previously been associated with any of its products.
“Today, Foster Farms leads the U.S. poultry industry in controlling Salmonella, consistently achieving an incidence rate of less than 5 percent in raw poultry parts compared to the 2011/2012 USDA-measured industry average of 25 percent. The company intends to remain committed to an incidence rate of less than 5 percent even if the anticipated new government parts standard is above that number.
“In 2013, Foster Farms developed a $75 million food safety program that effectively reduced Salmonella system-wide from the breeder level, to the farms where the birds are raised, to the plants where the chicken is processed and packaged. This included improvements to equipment and processes, the implementation of a continuous testing program, food safety education and the appointment of a Food Safety Advisory Board comprised of leading national experts.
“Foster Farms’ multi-hurdle program has been credited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its success in consistently and continuously controlling Salmonella in raw chicken. The company has also been recognized for its leadership in controlling Salmonella by U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a champion of improved food safety. Based on the program’s success, Foster Farms is actively sharing data and insights with other poultry and meat producers to improve food safety nationwide.”