For years, Foster Farms wanted consumers to know its poultry was farm fresh, all natural and, most important, safe to eat.
But the ongoing salmonella outbreak linked to three of its central California processing plants is threatening to tarnish the company’s image and raising hard questions about gaps in the nation’s food safety laws.
Considered among the industry’s leading producers with state-of-the-art facilities, Foster Farms is an example of how salmonella has become an increasingly potent threat to consumer safety.
"This is not your grandmother’s salmonella anymore," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It’s a new salmonella, much more potent, and modified with the use of antibiotics on the farm."
At least 278 people reportedly have been sickened in 18 states since March by a strain of Salmonella Heidelberg that has shown signs of resistance to antibiotics. That may explain why rates of hospitalization are nearly double that of typical salmonella outbreaks.
That prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week to threaten Foster Farms with closure of its two plants in Fresno and another in Livingston, Calif., where the company is headquartered.
That threat was lifted Thursday after Foster Farms met a deadline to show plans to improve conditions in the three problem plants. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service did not mandate a recall of chicken from those facilities. It deemed the company’s poultry safe to eat as long as it’s cooked to a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Still, Foster Farms faces a challenge restoring faith in its products.
In a letter to the company that is now circulating on the Internet, the USDA admonished the nation’s 10th-largest poultry producer for unsanitary conditions at those plants and cited a dozen instances this year in which fecal material was found on carcasses.
"Your establishment has failed to demonstrate that it has adequate controls in place to address salmonella in your poultry products," the letter said.
Kroger Co., the nation’s largest grocery chain, has already recalled chicken from the three Foster Farms facilities tied to the outbreak.
The chicken in question can be identified in supermarkets with USDA marks of inspection P6137, P6137A or P7632.
Officials at Foster Farms have not granted interviews, but in a written statement released late Wednesday, President and Chief Executive Ron Foster apologized for the illnesses and pledged to take steps to ensure the safety of its chicken.
The family-owned company had otherwise been considered a stalwart in the nation’s $45 billion chicken industry.
"We have a 75-year history for excellence because of our commitment to continuous advancement in food safety," Foster said in his prepared statement. "We are putting every resource we have toward the continued safety of our fresh chicken."
Some who track the poultry industry agreed, saying Foster Farms had put in place stringent food safety measures.
"The company’s reputation up until lately has been spotless," said Thomas E. Elam, president of farming consulting company FarmEcon in Carmel, Ind. "They’ve had an incredibly good safety record. They have been a really innovative company, jumping on top of the natural, eco-friendly, California themes."
What makes food safety particularly difficult for producers like Foster Farms is that salmonella can be present along any link in the supply chain. The bacteria thrive in animal intestinal tracts and are spread through contact with feces, whether in the air, water or ground. Feathers can also carry fecal dust particles.
Chicken and turkey are more susceptible to contamination than beef or pork because the skin is often left on for consumption.
Federal officials said conditions such as those listed in the USDA’s letter to Foster Farms are not uncommon in the poultry industry. Samples at the three plants found rates of salmonella in chicken parts on par with industry standards. Whole chickens fared even better.
"The non-compliances identified in these three facilities were in no way indicative there was a process out of control," said Dan Englejohn of the USDA’s inspection unit.
Food safety advocates said that underscores a glaring weakness in the inspection system. They say virulent forms of antibiotic resistant salmonella should be handled like E. coli O157:H7, which triggers an automatic recall.
"Producers have been successful at deflecting blame back on to consumers for not cooking poultry properly. It’s nonsensical," said Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer who represented dozens of plaintiffs after an E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s.
Antibiotic resistance has been blamed on overuse of drugs in agriculture. In the poultry industry, antibiotics help promote faster growth.
The USDA and Foster Farms declined to say what, if any, kinds of antibiotics were used at the three plants associated with the salmonella outbreak.
Times were simpler in 1939 when Max and Verda Foster borrowed $1,000 to invest in an 80-acre farm in Modesto, Calif. The first batch of Foster Farms chicks was hatched in the couple’s home so that Verda could watch them round the clock. She set a timer to remind her to rotate the eggs.
Today, Foster Farms has 12,000 employees and has grown almost every year since 2008. Revenue last year was estimated at $1.9 billion to $2.3 billion.
Unlike many competitors, Foster Farms produces most of its own chickens rather than contracting them to third-party ranches. Its facilities in California, Oregon and Washington allow it to deliver poultry to the West Coast faster than larger competitors in the Southeast and Texas.
In addition to five slaughter plants, Foster Farms has 11 facilities for processing, cooking, distribution and rendering. It also has six hatcheries, more than 500 breeder houses and farms to produce egg-laying flocks, and more than 2,300 broiler facilities where chicks grow to market size, according to trade publication WATT PoultryUSA.
Many of those sites provide valuable jobs to communities like Livingston, a city of 250,000 where the unemployment rate is18 percent.
A shutdown "would hurt everyone in this town in some way," said 65-year-old retiree Mary Bates while dining Thursday at the Foster Farms cafe, a restaurant popular with the company’s employees and decorated with stuffed Foster Farms chicken toys and chicken on its wallpaper.
When news of the outbreak’s link to Foster Farms emerged, Livingston Mayor Gurpal Samra said his phone was ringing off the hook. But it wasn’t people worried about the chicken. It was people worried about a shutdown.
"It’s not just us, it’s Merced, Turlock, all the neighboring communities. There would be a huge ripple effect," Samra said. "Even a short amount of time would be a big hit here where we have high unemployment."
He added: "We eat chicken every day here, and people are not dying. We’re more concerned about a shutdown."