Our View: A wake-up call for Foster Farms and consumers

10/31/2013 6:30 PM

10/31/2013 7:19 PM

Foster Farms, the Livingston-based family business with an outstanding reputation for quality, and consumers nationwide got a double-barrel wake-up call recently with an outbreak of salmonellosis. The illness, caused by the salmonella bacteria commonly found in – and completely harmless to – chickens, resulted in a reported 362 infections in the past few weeks.

Consumers got a stark reminder about how important it is to cook chicken thoroughly and to not let raw chicken or its juice come in contact – directly or indirectly – with other food items. When cooked to 165 degrees, the bacteria is killed.

Prior to this situation, Foster Farms had a good track record of keeping the prevalence of salmonella in their chickens well below the federal standard of 7.5 percent of birds tested and the industry standard of 3.5 percent. But those tests are done before the second stage of processing, when the birds are cut up into parts (breasts, thighs, etc.), for which there is no federal or industry regulation. This is the stage where the problem arose.

This episode has made Foster Farms realize that simply being average isn’t good enough, according to Ira Brill, spokesman for the company. During a meeting with The Bee Thursday morning, Brill noted that every aspect of the company is focused on providing an outstanding customer experience, and in no part should they settle for simply being average; Foster Farms needs to be a leader in all categories.

The Oct. 8 announcement sent Foster Farms into quick action. It has instituted multiple new safety protocols, all the way from the breeder chickens through the processing plant. This, on top of procedures that include shutting down the entire facility for six to eight hours each day for cleaning, sterilization and testing by the USDA. If those daily tests aren’t completed or passed, production can’t resume.

While the Centers for Disease Control’s most recent report Tuesday showed an additional 24 reported illnesses, there have been no reported deaths and the trend is on the decline. Salmonellosis also has a peak season, where more cases are reported – during the summer, the heart of barbecue season.

Even the smallest health concerns with the food supply can cause dramatic reaction, and this case was no different. Foster Farms reported a decline in sales of 25 percent earlier this month. While he wasn’t able to provide specific numbers, Brill did note that sales are recovering and are much improved over the declines reported earlier.

Consumer concerns certainly contributed to the loss of sales, but the larger damage was done by the disruption in the distribution network, notably Kroger – a Midwestern grocery conglomerate that owns such stores as Ralphs, Food4Less and FoodsCo – which removed Foster Farms chicken from its stores. Most recently, Mexico stopped all imports of the chicken processed in Foster Farms’ three California plants. According to Brill, exports are a very small portion of their business. Company officials are working daily with Kroger to restore that large business and with government trade officials on the Mexico market.

Along with the beefed-up efforts to improve safety and restore its business, Foster Farms took the unorthodox and far-too-rare step of apologizing for the problem. There were no semantic games or subtle overtones in a full-page ad that ran in last Sunday’s Bee which in part read: “For nearly 75 years Foster Farms has worked hard to earn your trust, and we know that the recent Salmonella illnesses associated with Foster Farms have shaken that trust. We want to take this opportunity to apologize wholeheartedly.”

Foster Farms is in the midst of a study with UC Davis to further explore ways to help consumers prevent salmonella contamination, all the while committing themselves to providing the safest, most reliable chicken products possible. Brill commented that Foster Farms would like to get to a point where salmonella-related illness becomes a thing of the past. Given their track record and their willingness to accept responsibility and act as a result, we are inclined to believe them.

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