WASHINGTON — 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 and Prevention (CDC) says there were 50 new reported illnesses in the past two months, bringing to 574 the total number of cases in the outbreak. Most cases are in California.
Although centered on the West Coast, the outbreak is widespread; victims came from 27 states and Puerto Rico. There have been no known deaths.
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The Agriculture Department (USDA) says it is monitoring Foster Farms facilities and measured rates of salmonella in the company’s products have been declining. 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.
The group filed a lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asking the USDA to respond to a three-year-old petition urging the agency to treat antibiotic resistant strains of salmonella as an adulterant. Doing so could give the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service broader powers to issue recalls and prevent tainted meat from reaching the marketplace.
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 plants. The company suggested the recent cases may be because salmonella incidence increases in the warmer months.
Foster Farms also was linked to salmonella illnesses in 2004 and 2012, before the current outbreak, which started in 2013.
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.
Because of those rules, USDA would likely have to go through the courts if it decided to force a recall.
The CDC said three-fourths of victims who were able to provide the agency with brand information said they had consumed chicken produced by Foster Farms before becoming ill. Thirty-seven percent of victims were hospitalized and 13 percent of the victims had developed blood infections, almost three times the normal rate.
USDA has not released a comprehensive list of where Foster Farms is sold. Last year, Costco and Kroger-owned stores took Foster Farms products off their shelves. Neither company responded to a request for comment on whether they are selling it again.
Foster Farms also did not respond to a request for comment on retail outlets.