Nearly 300 people in 18 states have been hospitalized in the latest salmonella outbreak to strike in the U.S., This time, the culprit is salmonella-tainted chicken.Unfortunately, it's exactly the sort of scenario some food safety advocates and lawmakers warned of when the government shutdown went into effect.
Here are the facts:
- As of Oct. 8,278 people had been confirmed sick from the salmonella outbreak in 18 states. Seventy-seven percent of the cases are in California.
- Forty-Two percent of the cases have been hospitalized—which is unusually high for a salmonella outbreak, and likely due to the fact that the strain is thought to be antibiotic-resistant.
- No deaths have been reported yet.
- The source of the salmonella poisoning is tainted Foster Farms chicken.
The USDA issued the initial public health alert—not the CDC, because, due to the government shutdown, most of its staff had been furloughed. The CDC monitors and tracks foodborne illness in the U.S., but is operating on a skeleton crew because of the budget crisis. In fact, the CDC had paired its staff down to just one person monitoring 30 existing clusters of illness, down from the normal eight, because of the shutdown.
Thankfully, the CDC has now recalled 30 employees to fully staff its outbreak monitoring centers because of the "perceived imminent threat" of this salmonella outbreak.
We're still not sure whether or not the delay caused by furloughs may have allowed additional cases of illness, however.
Shockingly, Foster Farms has not issued a recall of the tainted chicken—and the government has not requested that it do so. In fact, Marion Nestle of Food Politics points out that Foster Farms is actually laying blame on the government in a statement:
Consumers should know that as recently as Oct. 8, USDA-FSIS publicly assured the safety of our chicken: “Foster Farms chicken is safe to eat but, as with all raw chicken, consumers must use proper preparation, handling and cooking practices.” There is no recall in effect and FSIS continues to inspect our poultry on a daily basis, certifying it as Grade A wholesome.”
Attorney Bill Marler, who specializes in foodborne illness cases, unearther some esoteric legalese which basically affirms that if salmonella is on the outside of whole chicken—as opposed to cut or ground chicken—it's pretty much the consumer's problem. This could explain the lack of a voluntary or forced recall. Foster Farms agrees:
Raw poultry is not a ready-to-eat product. All raw poultry is subject to naturally occurring bacteria… According to the CDC, “It is not unusual for raw poultry from any producer to have Salmonella bacteria. CDC and USDA-FSIS recommend consumers follow food safety tips to prevent Salmonella infection from raw poultry produced by Foster Farms or any other brand.”
The USDA, which allows poultry producers to sell chicken at a 10 percent rate of salmonella contamination, seems to be leading the charge—or lack thereof—against Foster Farms, as opposed to the FDA. The FDA, which would normally be in charge of food recalls, is operating with only half its staff because of the government shutdown, and the USDA announced on Oct. 10 that it would not close three Foster Farms plants.
Unfortunately, by the CDC's own numbers, the rate of infection is not declining as it normally would, indicating that the worst may be yet to come for U.S. chicken consumers.
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