The salmonella outbreak in Foster Farms chicken has cut sales by 25 percent, company leaders said Thursday while vowing to win back consumers with improved sanitation and other measures that far exceed industry standards.
Ron Foster, president and chief executive officer, made his first public comments about an outbreak that has sickened an estimated 317 people around the nation since March.
“We have never been kicked this hard in our company’s history,” Foster said in an interview with The Bee at his Livingston headquarters. “It has hurt us to the core.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture had threatened last week to shut down the plants, one in Livingston and two in Fresno, after finding that they were the likely source of the raw chicken involved in the outbreak. They stayed in operation after Foster Farms showed progress on control measures.
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The company did not recall any products, and health officials said they were safe as long as consumers handled and cooked them properly.
That did not keep the business from taking a hit to its sales, which Foster said were running about $2.3 billion a year before the outbreak.
He said that despite the sales drop, there was no workforce reduction: The company continues to employ about 3,500 people in Livingston and about 9,500 statewide. An additional 2,500 or so people work in several Western and Southern states.
The new measures include more intensive sanitizing of work surfaces and equipment and vaccination against this type of salmonella for the hens and roosters that produce the chickens raised for meat.
“My prediction is that what we’re doing is going to drive the whole industry to a new standard,” said Dr. Robert O’Connor, a veterinarian and senior vice president of technical services for Foster Farms.
The company does not know how long it could take for sales to recover, although there has been progress, said Bryan Reese, senior vice president for sales, marketing, research and development.
“Honestly, it’s anybody’s guess,” he said. “We’re going to do it one day at a time.”
A million birds a day
Max and Verda Foster, grandparents of Ron Foster, founded the company in Modesto in 1939. It has become the top-selling poultry brand in the West and long has had a sterling reputation for wholesome, high-quality products.
The three plants handle about 1million chickens each day, about half of them in the vast Livingston plant, under the watch of USDA inspectors.
Salmonella is found naturally in chickens, O’Connor said. The birds do not get sick from it, he said, but people can if precautions are not taken.
O’Connor said Foster Farms already had been disinfecting the poultry barns after one flock was sent for processing and before another arrived to grow to market weight. They also have barriers against insects and other creatures that can spread salmonella.
The company has used vaccines in the breeding flock and now has one focused on salmonella Heidelberg, the type involved in the outbreak, O’Connor said.
Plant employees long have worn coveralls, rubber boots and other protective attire, which will be disinfected more often under the new procedures, he said.
The plants also will get more frequent disinfection, including tools, working surfaces and conveyor belts. This is on top of the four to six hours of daily cleaning that must be done before the federal inspectors will let the plant run each day.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, tolerates some salmonella in raw chicken, on the grounds that it occurs naturally in the birds. For whole chickens, it is up to 7.5percent of the samples, but O’Connor said Foster Farms has zero. The company has a 25percent rate for raw chicken parts, about the industry standard, but is working to reduce it to 5percent, he said.
Close to home
Most of the reported salmonella cases were in California, including six in Stanislaus County and two in San Joaquin County. No deaths were reported. The FSIS said the most common symptoms are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within eight to 72 hours. Chills, headache, nausea and vomiting can last up to seven days.
The outbreak has brought calls for tougher rules from food-safety activists and garnered the kind of media attention no producer wants.
“It is shameful that the government would not take action despite so many consumers getting sick and becoming hospitalized in this ongoing outbreak,” said toxicologist Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center, in a news release last week.
New York Times food writer Mark Bittman led off a column Tuesday with this question: “Should I stop eating chicken?” He said the outbreak involved a strain of salmonella that is “virulent, nasty and resistant to some commonly used antibiotics.”
O’Connor said a University of California at Davis study found that salmonella Heidelberg samples from Foster Farms were not resistant to antibiotics. He also cited a study finding that this strain is killed by cooking chicken to at least 165 degrees, as recommended by Foster Farms and many health officials.
Officials urge consumers to wash cutting boards, utensils and other items that come in contact with raw chicken, and to keep it from touching other foods. O’Connor also said salmonella cases tend to peak in summer, when people often grill outdoors with less attention to cleanliness than at other times.
Foster Farms has faced questions about why it did not issue a recall of its raw chicken. The company said that was not necessary because, even during the shutdown threat, the FSIS continued to certify the products as safe.
Costco Wholesale recalled rotisserie chickens that had been prepared at its South San Francisco store with birds from Foster Farms. On Thursday, it added 13,455 chickens to the 8,730 recalled last week, along with items made with the meat. The FSIS said the chicken appears to have been contaminated after it was cooked at the store.
Thursday, several consumer groups urged the USDA to do a better job of inspecting poultry. In a letter to the department, they ask why the government has not asked Foster Farms to recall its chicken. And they say Congress should set new performance standards for the industry. Those signing the letter included the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumers League.
Even though it is not recalling its chicken, Foster Farms continues its longtime policy of offering refunds to dissatisfied customers, Foster said.
Company leaders noted that Foster Farms has produced about 2.5billion servings of chicken since the start of the outbreak in March, and a tiny percentage of consumers got sick. For all of that, they said, they take responsibility for what happened. “It’s been horrific,” Foster said, “absolutely horrific.”