California Chicken Salmonella Susceptible to Antibiotics

US - Foster Farms, the poultry processor at the centre of a recent chicken recall due to Salmonella Heidelberg, has released a statement highlighting its commitment to solving the issue. The bacteria have been tested and found not to show antibiotic-resistance to commonly used drugs in human medicine.
calendar icon 30 October 2013
clock icon 11 minute read

Foster Farms says that it regrets any illness associated with our fresh chicken products, saying: "Our consumers are most important to us, so we have always taken special care to ensure the quality and safety of our food.

"A series of new processes developed with the input of experts in relevant fields and incorporated at our California facilities are already further reducing Salmonella incidence in our fresh chicken products. Working with US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approval, we are determined to significantly outperform the industry average for Salmonella incidence , which is approximately 25 per cent for chicken parts. While there is no published government standard for this stage in poultry processing, we are aiming for five per cent or less, which means Foster Farms would lead the industry in Salmonella control. Initial test results show significant progress toward meeting our goal.

"Salmonella is a complex issue for the poultry industry, particularly because the bacteria are inherent in bird species. Foster Farms is focused on breaking the chain of Salmonella at every stage of production – from the farms where the birds live, to the plants where the chicken is processed and to the packaging area."

Food Safety System Review

"As soon as the USDA and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) made us aware of the association of some of the illnesses to our products, we immediately reviewed our comprehensive food safety system with the help of leading food safety experts and developed a plan to implement system enhancements," says Foster Farms.

"This plan has been approved by the USDA , and to ensure the ongoing review of our food safety system, we are developing a Food Safety Advisory Committee of experts who will continuously advise us on how to further strengthen our processes."

Current Standard for Controlling and Testing for Salmonella

To verify raw chicken is safe for consumption by the public, Foster Farms says that USDA verifies the efficacy of all US producers’ Salmonella control systems by testing samples pulled from production.

During processing, all raw chicken undergoes two main processes: the first process to cleanse, prepare and inspect the whole body of the chicken and the second process to convert the body into portions for sale, either as a whole chicken or its separate parts.

The operating principle, followed by both government regulators and the poultry industry, has been that if producers had sufficiently controlled Salmonella at the end of the first process, they had sufficiently controlled the potential exposure to Salmonella throughout all production.

Foster Farms’ Performance in First Process

For three years running, the Foster Farms results of USDA testing after our first process for whole chicken have been at or near zero percent incidence of Salmonella. That is 7.5 percentage points lower than the regulatory allowance and 3.5 percentage points better than the industry average.

"We also outperform both regulatory and industry standards for turkey products. This is why we say we always have striven for and achieved excellence in food safety," says Foster Farms.

Foster Farms’ Performance in Second Process

When it comes to the efficacy of Salmonella control in the second process, there is no published government standard, and testing is not regularly conducted, according to the Company.

"When USDA tested the efficacy of our controls in the second process in September 2013, the results averaged 25 per cent, which is not acceptable to us.

"It is important to note, this was a one-time test conducted with a newly determined test protocol. While this score does not please us, we understand it is on par with the industry average as determined by a 2012 USDA study of 449 poultry producers nationwide."

Tightening Controls during Second Process

Foster Farms says: "In response, we committed to bringing the incidence rate down to five per cent or less – a five-fold improvement from the industry average.

"At Foster Farms, we now believe we are the first chicken producer to focus on controlling Salmonella throughout the second process in order to achieve this new standard. We believe this is providing some of the safest chicken produced."

Process Enhancements

In order to achieve this new level of control, Foster Farms says it instituted enhancements throughout itsr food safety system – from requiring Salmonella-free certification from the breeder flock supplier to implementing additional controls throughout our second process at the plant.

After USDA’s acceptance of its plan on 10 October, the Company began implementing additional practices and procedures on 11 October. To date, Foster Farms has already implemented 23 new control measures specifically for Salmonella reduction. With these measures in place, the Company says it is confident that Foster Farms will emerge as the safest and most vigilant poultry producer in the country. Examples include the following:

On the farms and in the hatcheries:

  • Since Salmonella is a normal inhabitant of the poultry digestive system, the procedures used to reduce the amount of Salmonella in poultry must begin before the chicks are even born.
  • All breeder source suppliers are required to provide Foster Farms with Salmonella-free replacement breeder hens that can be verified through documented Salmonella testing results. Since Salmonella can be passed from the mother hen to the chick, through the egg, any reduction in Salmonella must begin with the mother hen.
  • All Foster Farms breeder hens have been vaccinated against Salmonella Heidelberg since 2006 as part of a health program designed to stimulate the bird’s immune system to reduce the ability of Salmonella to colonize the hen.
  • Probiotics are included in all feed consumed by the birds in order to help maintain a healthy intestinal flora that inhibits the ability of Salmonella to colonise the intestinal tract.
  • Foster Farms has added enhanced biosecurity procedures on all farms focusing on additional washing and disinfection steps that target key areas within the poultry houses, including equipment, hen nests, bedding material, egg belts and feed delivery systems.
  • Structural biosecurity improvements to farm houses have been made to reduce the exposure of the chickens to insects and wildlife, which are potential carriers of Salmonella.
  • Farm biosecurity practices of isolation, traffic control and sanitation, including washing vehicles, wearing protective biosecurity clothing, disinfecting footwear and limiting outside visitors to the farms, help reduce the exposure of the chickens to potential outside sources of Salmonella.

At the processing plant:

  • Foster Farms has always conducted a four- to six-hour (depending on size of facility) sanitisation process in our production facilities prior to the beginning of each shift. In fact, we cannot restart production without USDA certification of cleanliness.
  • The Company has enhanced the food safety steps intended to lower the incidence level of Salmonella on raw chicken to include poultry parts.
  • It has increased the frequency of equipment sanitization at every point of contact with raw product from the processing area to finished packaging.
  • Additional systems are being installed to maintain the sanitary condition of conveyor belts that transfer the products from the processing equipment and in to finished packaging.
  • For specialty product lines, such as marinated chicken, Foster Farms is using non-chemical interventions to ensure the safest enhancements possible.

Going beyond the plants:

  • The Company says it is constantly reviewing best practices from its and other industries, including measures taken by ready-to-eat facilities.
  • It has adopted practices that help tighten controls and improve standards across the entire company.
  • It is developing the Foster Farms Food Safety Advisory Committee, comprising leading food safety experts, who will continuously review and recommend emerging technologies and enhancements.
  • It is working with industry and government partners to explore ways to improve food safety across the board for all products at all of its facilities.

Results to Date

Three rounds of marketplace testing since the implementation of our enhancements, says Foster Farms, conducted on 12, 15 and 21 October, show the company has already brought the incidence rate for Salmonella significantly down after the second process, near its goal of five per cent.

"Foster Farms is committed to being a leader in food safety well into the future. We will continue to work with USDA, the industry and leading food safety and poultry experts to ensure our products are safe when properly handled and fully cooked," the Company says.

Food Safety: A Shared Responsibility

Foster Farms continues: "Even with the best controls, however, raw meats will continue to carry the risk of some Salmonella. This is why food safety is a shared responsibility between producers and consumers and everyone in between, including the government.

"We take our responsibility to limit the potential exposure to Salmonella very seriously. We are committed to leading the industry. However another part of our responsibility is to continuously educate consumers to handle and cook their raw chicken properly. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has stated that Foster Farms fresh chicken is safe to eat if properly handled and fully cooked.

"There is no scientific data to suggest that Salmonella Heidelberg is heat-resistant. In fact, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) told The New York Times there is “no evidence that these strains are more resistant to heat than others. Furthermore, Foster Farms commissioned an independent, third-party validation study on heat resistance for Salmonella Heidelberg. That study found that cooking raw chicken to 165°F completely eradicated Salmonella Heidelberg. Retailers are also helping educate consumers about food safety practices.

"Despite the potential for criticism about deflecting responsibility, the meat and poultry industries are strongly committed to educating consumers and spend millions of dollars on campaigns to advise consumers every year, especially during the summer grilling season."

Antibiotic Resistance

Foster Farms commissioned a study by the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital Microbiology Lab at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to evaluate the antibiotic resistance patterns of the Salmonella Heidelberg found on its chickens (not human patients). According to the CDC, “Choices for antibiotic therapy for severe infections [Salmonellosis] include fluoroquinolones, third-generation cephalosporins and ampicillin.”

The U.C. Davis study found that the Foster Farms Salmonella Heidelberg samples tested were susceptible to (could be treated by) a number of common antibiotics including those referenced by the CDC including ampicillin; cephalosporins (cefoxitin, ceftiofur and ceftriaxone); fluoroquinolones, (ciprofloxacin); as well as others, including amoxicillin, azithromycin, gentamicin, kanamycin, streptomycin, sulfisoxazole, tetracycline and trimethoprim-sulfa.

Public Health Alert vs. Recall

The Foster Farms statement continues: "On 7 October, the USDA-FSIS issued a public health alert due to concerns that illness caused by strains of Salmonella Heidelberg had been associated with raw chicken products produced by Foster Farms at three facilities in California. The USDA did not request a recall. Instead, its alert emphasised the need to fully cook and properly handle raw poultry.

"The alert noted the plants in question use a stamp on all their product packages with the plant codes P-6137, P-6137A and P-7632. These codes do not reference a particular product or production period. While some have mistaken the inclusion of the plant codes in the alert for products that have been recalled, they do not.

"Foster Farms deliberated whether to voluntarily recall its fresh chicken. Foster Farms took the following into consideration:

  • USDA and CDPH have stated a recall is not necessary because none of our chicken products are adulterated
  • Both USDA-FSIS and the CDPH have said our chicken is safe if handled and cooked properly
  • USDA-FSIS officials inspect our product and verify our food safety processes daily
  • USDA has rated our food safety system in the top category for efficacy for a number of years.

"If we believed our chicken represented a greater risk to public health than any other raw poultry product on the market, we would have recalled it. In fact, we believe it is safer.

"Our corporate values and our care for our consumers would never allow us to offer chicken to the public that was not wholesome. Our confidence in our product allows us to stand behind our 100 per cent Golden Guarantee.

"If anyone has a concern about their chicken, for whatever reason, they should feel free to bring it back for replacement or refund.

"While we work with USDA to understand the concerns related to this outbreak, we continue to enhance our food safety system. In the meantime, the USDA-FSIS continues to inspect and approve our chicken products for sale to the public, and testing indicates that our enhancements are working and our chicken is becoming even safer than before."

Ongoing Commitment

Foster Farms' statement concludes that the Company "truly regrets any illness associated with our products. Our brand was built on trust, and it is now our responsibility to earn it back. We plan to do so by establishing a gold standard for food safety across all our facilities.

"The entire company is committed to a future that makes the safety of our products – and the satisfaction of our consumers – central to everything we do."

Further Reading

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