RAW: USDA may pull inspectors from Salmonella outbreak plants

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has told Foster Farms that it will block operations at facilities in California that have been implicated in a multistate Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak unless the company quickly outlines its plans for making the product safer, according to an Oct 7 letter from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

The FSIS asked for a reply from Foster Farms within 3 business days. The FSIS threatened to pull inspectors from the plants, which would prevent the company from selling chicken processed there.

The FSIS said the plants aren’t operating in a manner consistent with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans, which it said violated federal food safety regulations.

So far 278 cases of salmonellosis have been reported in the outbreak, 213 of them in California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Oct 8. Most of the 17 affected states are in the West.

The FSIS said that it and the CDC have been investigating the outbreak, which began in March. The agency said that intensified Salmonella testing over a 3-week period in September found a high frequency of positive tests for one of more of the outbreak strains, especially at the company’s plant in Fresno, Calif., one of three that have been associated with the illnesses.

Positive tests for the outbreak strain in the products and the illnesses suggest that sanitary conditions at the plant pose an ongoing serious public health threat, the FSIS said. The letter acknowledged that safety improvements at the company’s facility in Kelso, Wash., resulted in fewer microbiologic findings and illnesses.

The letter also aired concerns about multiple inspector reports from earlier this year of fecal material on chicken carcasses.

Foster Farm president Ron Foster, in a letter posted yesterday on the company’s Web site, said the company is taking all possible steps to ensure the safety of its products and that the FSIS letter applies to its plants in Livingston and Fresno.

Note: See another story on this issue, located below, for a description of the batches of chicken affected.