The U.S. Department of Agriculture demanded that Foster Farms, the California company implicated in the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak that has sickened over 250 people, respond by Thursday with how the company will fix the problem. The company has complied and submitted a plan to the agency.
In a letter obtained by CNN, a USDA official told the company since the beginning of the year “your establishment has had multiple regulatory non-compliances issued for insanitary conditions.”
Chicken from those plants have been implicated in 278 illnesses in 18 states.
The agency has the authority to take action under the Poultry Products Inspection Act, which entrusts the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service to keep the public safe from poultry and meat products which are not wholesome, adulterated, or properly marked, labeled and packaged.
"Foster Farms is dedicated to resolving any concerns by the USDA. We are fully cooperating with FSIS during this process and are responding with new and already implemented practices in the affected plants. Some of these interventions have been in place for nearly two months and are proving to be successful. In addition, we have brought in national food safety experts to assess our processes," said Foster Farms President Ron Foster in a statement released Wednesday evening.
"Earlier this year, we implemented similar new technology and interventions which were found to be highly effective at reducing Salmonella at our Pacific Northwest facility. The FSIS has been fully satisfied with the results," Foster continued. "Despite the challenges of working with the federal government during the shutdown, we are a responsible business working that much harder in full collaboration with the USDA on a resolution."
On Thursday, The USDA released a statement saying: "Our top priority is to ensure the safety of the food Americans feed their families. Foster Farms has submitted and implemented immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations. FSIS inspectors will verify that these changes are being implemented in a continuous and ongoing basis. Additionally the agency will continue intensified sampling for at least the next 90 days."
The Centers for Disease Control first alerted FSIS to a growing number of Salmonella cases on July 1, USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee told CNN. At the time, 18 people had been sickened in four states, and Foster Farms was a possible link between the patients. USDA investigators began "site sampling," or testing Foster Farms facilities on September 9, and concluded their analysis of the majority of the samples collected on October 7.
"The partial government shutdown did not affect the investigation or communication with the public," Lavallee said.
The CDC reports that people in a normal state of health who ingest Salmonella-tainted food may experience diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, which typically begin within 12 to 72 hours. This may be accompanied by vomiting, chills, headache and muscle pains. These symptoms may last about four to seven days, and then go away without specific treatment. But left unchecked, Salmonella infection may spread to the bloodstream and beyond, and may cause death if the person is not treated promptly with antibiotics.
Children, the elderly and people with compromised immune symptoms should practice extreme caution, as salmonellosis may lead to severe illness or even death.
A notice posted on the Foster Farms website states that: "Raw poultry is not a ready-to-eat product. All raw poultry is subject to naturally occurring bacteria. Whether the raw product is our brand or another, whether there is an alert or not, all raw chicken must be prepared following safe handling procedures, avoiding cross-contamination, and must be fully cooked to 165 degrees to ensure safety."
About 48 million people contract some form of food poisoning each year, according to the CDC.