Farmaceuticals: Problems at Foster Farms plants emerged amid salmonella outbreak

(Keith Weller photo courtesy ARS/USDA)

Livingston, Calif. | Reuters — Sanitation problems at a slaughterhouse can promote the spread of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” by allowing dangerous bacteria to remain on meat that is shipped into the food supply. In the poultry industry, salmonella is a particular risk.

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A review of government food-safety inspections from 2013 shows federal inspectors repeatedly cited Foster Poultry Farms for not complying with food-safety standards at three plants in central California linked to a salmonella outbreak that began that March. The 18-month salmonella outbreak ended in July of this year.

U.S. Department of Agriculture records show that inspectors found problems at two plants in Fresno and a third in Livingston, California. Investigators traced chicken handled at those plants to a Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak that made hundreds of people sick.

According to the USDA reports, raw chicken headed for chilling tanks was smeared with feces. At one plant, workers entered a packaging area wearing gloves that had not been properly cleaned.

Salmonella is common in chicken feces, feathers and other body parts, and it can cause diarrhea, fever, vomiting and other ailments in humans. Foster Farms and other poultry companies say they use antibiotics on live chickens to keep them healthy, and after the birds are slaughtered, they apply antimicrobial treatments to remove pathogens from raw meat.

“Foster Farms is fully committed to sanitary operations in all company facilities,” the company said in a statement.

Sanitation lapses can compromise food safety equipment, especially when problems occur at the final stages of processing, say epidemiologists and food safety consultants.

During the recent Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak, inspectors for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service cited Foster Farms more than 480 times for not complying with food safety standards, according to agency records obtained by Reuters. The USDA records cover the period beginning Feb. 1, 2013, a month before the outbreak began, and ending Dec. 31.

On Oct. 11, 2013, for instance, a USDA inspector at the Foster Farms plant in Livingston found fecal-filled intestines stored in tubs alongside raw chicken giblets. The giblets had been treated to reduce salmonella and other bacteria, and were nearly ready for shipment, according to the report.

A separate USDA inspector at the Fresno plant found feces on chicken heading into a chiller on June 28, 2013. One of 10 carcasses pulled from the chilling process was “contaminated with visible feces,” the inspector wrote.

Foster Farms said it quickly corrects problems found in such “routine in-process” inspections. “The important point is that we have always worked quickly to fully address, correct any USDA concerns and improve our process,” the company said.

This summer, Foster Farms said it has invested more than US$75 million in new equipment and other efforts to reduce salmonella rates. Today, the company said, chicken processed at the Fresno and Livingston plants shows contamination in only 2.4 per cent of tests, well below the industry’s 25 per cent average.

— P.J. Huffstutter reports on agriculture for Reuters from Chicago.

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