LIVINGSTON -- For the past 23 years, Joga Chahal considers himself a loyal Foster Farms employee.
The 49-year-old line worker-host inspector, who also serves as president of the Foster Farms’ employee union, said he normally looks forward to going to work – but not on Thursday.
“I felt sad coming to work,” Chahal said. “I’m proud of my company. I’ve been praying about it; maybe God will help us.”
Chahal reacted Thursday to news that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has threatened to shut down three Foster Farms chicken plants in the Valley – including Livingston – because of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened an estimated 278 people around the country.
Roughly six people reported illnesses in Stanislaus County, but there are no reported cases in Merced County.
Chahal said he heard about the outbreak on the news and couldn’t believe it. He carefully inspects chickens he handles on the line each day, along with two USDA inspectors.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Chahal said, shaking his head. “I check the whole chicken every day, and they are very clean. I believe my company makes good chicken.”
Livingston resident Gursharan Kang said he found the news a “little surprising” because the company has high standards for cleanliness. Kang’s father recently retired from Foster Farms after almost 20 years as a line worker.
“I remember my dad always having to wear a hairnet and things like that,” Kang said. “It led me to believe they’re a very clean company.”
Foster Farms’ current and former employees aren’t the only ones in Livingston who are concerned – the situation has also shaken the confidence of some area businesses.
For the first time in his career as a meat manager at the local Fiesta Supermarket, Ricky Dheri did not order Foster Farms chicken this week.
“I just ordered Tyson yesterday (Wednesday) to see if it makes a difference,” said Dheri, 28. Although the situation hasn’t affected his Foster Farms sales, Dheri said he isn’t taking any chances. “A lot of people come here to buy chicken, and if they think something is wrong with it, then they’ll stop buying altogether.”
Other brands don’t sell as well, Dheri said, because people still trust the Foster Farms brand name. “I hope they figure out what’s going on,” he said.
Alfredo Iniguez, store manager of Liberty Market, said his customers aren’t concerned about the outbreak. Although there’s no recall of chickens, the family-owned store placed a sign alerting customers about the issue Thursday.
“At first I was kind of worried about it because I felt our business could be affected by it,” Iniguez said. “But I just think they’re making too much of a big deal. What it comes down to is people cooking their chicken right.”
Iniguez said his store could be affected if the Foster Farms plant were to shut down in the future, because people wouldn’t have money to shop.
The Livingston plant is considered one of Merced County’s largest employers, with roughly 3,000 workers.
Mark Hendrickson, Merced County director of community and economic development, said a potential closure could have a ripple effect on the county’s economy.
“Foster Farms represents a very large and significant part of our economy here in Merced County,” Hendrickson said. “It would certainly impact the lives of each of their employees who are residents of Merced County and spend their resources in our community.
“It could have ancillary impacts to vendors, contractors and other businesses throughout the county as a result,” he added.
City and county officials weighed in on the issue Thursday. District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo, whose district includes Livingston, said whatever happens at Foster Farms has an impact on the entire county.
“It’s one of the biggest employers – if not the biggest employer of Merced County,” Pedrozo said. “They play an important role for the city of Livingston for employment. You have generations of people that work at Foster Farms.”
Livingston Councilman Arturo Sicairos said he’s confident Foster Farms will be able to overcome the fallout associated with the salmonella outbreak. “It’s a hurdle they have to get over, and they have the expertise and professionalism to take care of it,” Sicairos said.
Foster Farms has always been a good neighbor to the city, said Livingston Police Chief Ruben Chavez.
The company donated 300 hot dogs for National Night Out and will donate 100 frozen chickens to the Police Department’s Livingston Community Outreach event Saturday. “They’re a good partner to the community and very benevolent,” Chavez said.
Livingston Mayor Pro Tem Gurpal Samra on Thursday questioned whether the illnesses associated with Foster Farms chickens were linked to the plant, or just a result of consumer preparation.
“I understand people got sick, but where was the USDA?” Samra said. “How many of the illnesses are due to cross contamination after it left the plant or store? How many are due to people not cooking it properly?”
A security officer at the Foster Farms plant in Livingston on Thursday did not allow media inside, saying it was private property. Employees at the nearby Foster Farms Cafe declined comment, saying the restaurant manager was unavailable.
Aurora Meraz, secretary for the League of Independent Workers Local Lodge 2005, the union that represents Foster Farms workers, said Thursday that none of the 3,000 employees have reached out to the union about the issue.
Meraz said many Foster Farms workers are family members, making a potential closure in the future even more devastating.
“It could kill Livingston,” she said. “They’ll go to other places for jobs. That’s their livelihood; Foster Farms helps them pay for everything.”
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@Mercedsunstar.com.