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Chicken plants not closed in salmonella outbreak

This week the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to close two poultry slaughterhouses in California in connection with an outbreak of salmonella in chicken produce from Foster Farms' facilities, but then company met a USDA deadline with plans to fix the safety problems in the plants.

The salmonella from these plants has been describes as particularly dangerous, making this chicken an unreasonably dangerous product for a consumer to bring to their home. The food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest commented, "This is not your grandmother's salmonella anymore." By last week, 278 people have been reported sick from 18 states (but not Minnesota) in the last seven months, with nearly double the rate of hospitalization among the infected.

This outbreak derives from Salmonella Heidelberg strain of the bacteria that is apparently more antibiotic resistant. It has been suggested that salmonella has been growing more resistant because of the heavy use by farms and processing plants of antibiotics to control disease in the often-crowded conditions where many chicken are raised.

Chicken and other poultry can be susceptible to contamination by salmonella that is carried by fecal material within the chicken's intestinal tract. During the slaughtering process, the contents of the intestine can contaminate the skin or meat and transmit the bacterial infection to consumers.

What is most troubling is Foster Farms had a "spotless record" for food safety and seen as innovative in chicken industry. The company employs 12,000 people and is estimated to have $2 billion in revenue. In the local communities where the facilities were located, the concern was over the impact on jobs.

As food processing companies grow larger and become more concentrated both the potential for point sources spreading contaminated or infected food products and the pressure to refrain from closing plants because of their economic effect. We are not sure this will make the food supply safer.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Poultry plants linked to outbreak won't be closed," David Pierson, Diana Marcum and Tiffany Hsu, October 10, 2013

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