If past food-borne illness outbreaks are any indication of what Foster Farms faces in regaining its foothold in the marketplace, it won’t be an easy climb, experts say.
The Livingston-based poultry processor – one of the nation’s largest – has earned a sterling reputation for its attention to food safety, quality and humane animal practices.
But this week, the 64-year-old company came under intense scrutiny from federal food safety officials and consumer groups after its raw poultry products were linked to a salmonella outbreak that made 317 people sick in 20 states, including 232 in California.
In the San Joaquin Valley, Stanislaus County had six cases while Fresno County had five. Kings and Madera each had one. Tulare and Merced have not reported any salmonella illnesses from Foster Farms chicken.
Facing the potential closure of three of its processing plants, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service on Thursday allowed Foster Farms to continue operating its Livingston plant and two Fresno facilities after accepting the company’s plan for controlling the outbreak.
Although the company was not required to recall its raw chicken products, that did not stop at least one major grocery chain from pulling Foster Farms from its shelves: national retailer Kroger, which operates Food 4 Less in the Valley, plus Fred Meyer, Fry’s, King Soopers, Ralphs, Smith’s and QFC stores.
And at least one consumer group says eating Foster Farms chicken is too risky.
“We continue to urge consumers not to consume any raw chicken produced from the three affected plants,” said Urvashi Rangan, toxicologist and executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center.
Experts in consumer attitudes and public relations say any food-borne illness outbreak has the potential to be devastating for a company or industry.
Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, said that during the 2006 outbreak of E.coli in bagged spinach, it took several months for the industry to recover. The outbreak caused three deaths and sickened 205.
“But even three to four years later, there are still some who would not buy spinach in a bag,” Bruhn said.
To regain consumer confidence, Bruhn said, it’s important for companies such as Foster Farms to show they are making changes to address the problem.
Betsy Hays, a public relations professional and associate professor at Fresno State, said companies must also confront skittish consumers with usable information. That could be through words, pictures or videos showing food safety procedures.
“People need to believe that they will be safe, and then they can feel good about purchasing the product,” Hays said.
Foster Farms has taken some of those steps. On its website, the company said it’s doing everything it can to improve food safety, and it issued an apology.
Ron Foster, company president, offered this in a statement: “Food safety is – and always has been – at the very heart of our family business. On behalf of my family, I am sorry for any food-borne illness associated with Foster Farms chicken and for any concern this may have caused you.”
Locally, several grocery stores in Fresno, including Save Mart, have continued to carry Foster Farms products, while also reminding customers at the chicken displays about safe food-handling practices.
Fresno Bee staff writer Barbara Anderson contributed to this report.