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California chicken still linked to salmonella

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 28, 2014 at 5:50 pm •  Published: May 28, 2014
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WASHINGTON (AP) — An outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella linked to a California chicken producer continues to sicken people more than a year after it started.

Despite the illnesses, producer Foster Farms has not initiated a recall, and the government has no apparent plans to shut it down.

The federal Centers for Disease Control says there were 50 new reported illnesses in the last two months, bringing to 574 the total number of cases in the outbreak. Most of the illnesses are in California.

Though centered on the West Coast, the outbreak is widespread — victims came from 27 states and Puerto Rico. There have been no known deaths.

The Agriculture Department says it is closely monitoring Foster Farms facilities and that measured rates of salmonella in the company's products have been going down. The department threatened to shut down Foster Farms' facilities last year but let them stay open after the company said it had made immediate changes to reduce salmonella rates.

Food safety advocates say it is long past time to pressure the company for a recall and to shut down production.

"It's very unclear why USDA isn't taking more action to stop the sale of the product and protect the public," says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Foster Farms said this week that it has put new measures in place, including tighter screening of birds, improved safety on the farms where the birds are raised and better sanitation in its plants. The company suggested that the recent cases may be because salmonella incidence increases in the warmer months.

Dealing with outbreaks is nothing new for Foster Farms. The company was linked to salmonella illnesses in 2004 and then again in 2012, before the current outbreak, which started in 2013.

In a letter from USDA to Foster Farms last October, the department said inspectors had documented "fecal material on carcasses" along with "poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary nonfood contact surfaces and direct product contamination."

In January, USDA inspectors briefly closed a Foster Farms plant after finding cockroaches.

Recalls of poultry contaminated with salmonella are tricky because the law allows raw chicken to have a certain amount of salmonella — a rule that consumer advocates have long lobbied to change. Because salmonella is so prevalent in poultry and is killed if consumers cook it properly, the government has not declared it to be an "adulterant," or illegal, in meat, as is E. coli. Outbreaks of salmonella in poultry can take longer to discover and recalls don't happen as quickly.

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