Earliest possible reopening for Foster Farms is Wednesday

jholland@modbee.comJanuary 13, 2014 

BEA AHBECK CASSON — Merced Sun-Star

— Foster Farms said Monday that it could reopen its chicken plant here as early as Wednesday but that the reopening would not happen until the company ensures that the operation is clean.

The company closed the plant voluntarily Sunday, a day after reopening following a three-day federal shutdown related to cockroaches found at the site. The second closure was needed to make sure that the prevention measures were adequate, Foster Farms said.

Monday’s update came in a written statement to The Modesto Bee.

“Foster Farms expects this closure to be brief, lasting several days,” it said. “While we could resume operations as early as Wednesday, we will not do so until we are confident that we have the most stringent and effective treatment protocols in place.”

The plant – the company’s largest – has more than 1,000 of its 3,500 employees at work on this effort. Production workers are off, but they could get overtime and weekend shifts in the coming weeks, the company said.

Production has shifted to its two plants in Fresno, but details were not available. No consumer products have been affected, Foster Farms said.

The closures came three months after the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to suspend work at all three plants because of a pair of salmonella outbreaks believed to have sickened at least 550 people around the nation last year.

The latest news renewed questions from food-safety activists about why Foster Farms did not issue a recall of the raw chicken at issue – something that did occur last week at a Tyson Foods chicken plant in Missouri. The latter company recalled 33,840 pounds of product that had been shipped nationally for institutional use, such as prisons. It was linked to a salmonella outbreak among seven inmates in Tennessee.

“Why does Tyson recall its product after seven people are sickened and Foster Farms recalls nothing after 550 people are sickened in two outbreaks?” asked a blog post from Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney and food industry critic.

In Monday’s statement, Foster Farms said a recall was not needed because the salmonella was not tied to a specific product or batch by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The USDA and California Department of Public Health confirmed that Foster Farms products remained safe if properly handled and fully cooked,” the company said.

Also Monday, more than 30 groups around the nation issued a letter asking Foster Farms to disclose its use of antibiotics in live chickens. They are concerned that bacteria are developing resistance to some of these drugs and could harm people.

“Drug-resistant bacteria can lead to longer illnesses, more hospitalizations, the use of drugs with greater side effects, and treatment failure,” the letter said.

Foster Farms did not comment on the letter Monday. In the past, it has said that it uses only enough antibiotics to keep chickens healthy and does not use them to promote growth. It also said testing found that last year’s salmonella problem did not involve resistant bacteria.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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