Foster Farms met a Thursday deadline to show progress against salmonella in its chicken, a federal official said, so its plant in Livingston and two others in Fresno will stay open.
The plants can keep operating as long as Foster Farms submits to increased sampling for pathogens for at least 90 days, said Aaron Lavallee, deputy assistant administrator for the U.S. Department of Agricultures Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Foster Farms has submitted and implemented immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations, he said.
The FSIS had sent a letter Monday to Foster Farms seeking food safety changes after an outbreak that sickened an estimated 278 people in 18 states. Six cases were reported in Stanislaus County and two in San Joaquin County.
The agency gave the company 72 hours to take corrective action, or it would withdraw its inspectors. Poultry plants are not permitted to operate without USDA inspectors, who are considered essential government employees and have continued to work during the partial government shutdown.
Ron Foster, president and chief executive officer of Foster Farms, issued a statement Thursday saying the company will work hard on the improvements.
We started this process more than two months ago and this officially validates our progress, but we are not stopping here, he said. We are putting every resource and all of our energy toward food safety with the confidence that Foster Farms plants will be the most stringent in the industry.
Foster Farms employs about 3,000 people at the Livingston plant and nearby chicken farms and feed operations. It has more than 1,000 people in its two Fresno County plants and related sites. All told, it has about 12,000 employees in the West and South, including turkey processing in Turlock.
Consumer Reports has been calling for a recall of Foster Farms chicken, based on salmonella the watchdog group reported finding in a product sample.
Consumer Reports typically doesnt report findings from an individual test, but the connection of the sample to the current outbreak prompted us to make this information public, said Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center.
The company said the claim is groundless because the sample was taken before tighter controls were put in place at its plants.
Foster Farms also noted that the USDA continued to certify its chicken as safe even when the shutdown threat loomed. The company has been telling consumers that salmonella is a naturally occurring microbe in chicken, and they can protect themselves with careful handling and thorough cooking.
The California Department of Public Health backed up those points in a news release explaining why it has not asked Foster Farms to recall the chicken.
Chicken is a raw animal protein that is expected to have some level of naturally occurring bacteria present, said Dr. Ron Chapman, the department director and state health officer. Cooking chicken fully to 165 degrees Fahrenheit will kill the bacteria that are present. Provided that consumers do not cross-contaminate fully cooked chicken with raw chicken juices, it is safe to consume.
Robert Rodriguez and Diana Aguilera of The Fresno Bee contributed to this report. Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.