After 75 years, Foster Farms remembers its path to success

Robert Oâ™Connor, company veterinarian for Foster Farms holds a 9 day old broiler chick at the Fox Rd. Chicken ranch owned by Foster Farms in Atwater.
Robert Oâ™Connor, company veterinarian for Foster Farms holds a 9 day old broiler chick at the Fox Rd. Chicken ranch owned by Foster Farms in Atwater. dnoda@modbee.com

Foster Farms celebrated its 75th anniversary in the poultry business Monday, while reporting progress on salmonella concerns that made the last of those years a rough one.

About 125 people turned out at the ranch west of Waterford where the late Max and Verda Foster founded the company in 1939; the exact date is unknown. Foster Farms has since become the top-selling poultry brand in the West.

“What they had was a strong will, a strong work ethic,” said grandson Ron Foster, president and chief executive officer of the company, now based in Livingston. Its largest chicken plant is there, employing about 3,500 people, and it has about 1,300 in the Turlock turkey operation.

Company leaders said sales dropped about 25 percent right after news broke in October of the salmonella issues in Livingston and two Fresno plants, but they recovered quickly.

“The business is essentially back to 100 percent of what it was prior to the public health alert,” said Bryan Reese, senior vice president for sales, marketing, research and development.

The family-owned company does not divulge financial details, but Ron Foster said last year that annual sales were running about $2.3 billion. The work force totals about 12,000, including operations in California, the Pacific Northwest, Colorado and the South.

Federal authorities said at least 574 people got sick from eating chicken from the three plants; none of them died. The bacteria can cause digestive problems and other symptoms.

Salmonella occurs naturally in live chickens but can be rendered harmless if consumers cook the meat thoroughly, said Dr. Robert O’Connor, a veterinarian and senior vice president of technical services at Foster Farms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture nonetheless has rules for keeping the bacteria in check.

O’Connor said salmonella has been detected in 2 percent to 3 percent of samples of cut-up raw chicken from the three plants this spring. That is less than the industry benchmark of 25 percent and Foster Farms’ new goal of 5 percent, he said. Whole raw chickens have not been a problem.

“I believe that the risk from our products in particular is much less today than it might have been last fall,” O’Connor said. He spoke Monday at a media briefing that preceded a tour of a chicken ranch near Atwater.

Home base

Monday’s gathering at the home ranch, which no longer houses poultry, drew industry leaders, elected officials and other supporters. They lunched on barbecued chicken.

The celebration took place just steps from the small barn that Max Foster, a Modesto Bee editor at the time, erected for the baby turkeys he was starting to raise for other farmers. He had borrowed $1,000 against a life insurance policy to launch the venture, which soon included a chicken hatchery tended by Verda Foster.

The couple in 1941 started Foster Farms Dairy, a separate company that remains in family ownership and is known as Crystal Creamery.

Foster Farms expanded its poultry operations and acquired other producers in the decades that followed its founding amid the Depression. It thrived as U.S. chicken consumption grew, eventually overtaking beef as the top-selling meat.

Foster Farms and other producers moved beyond the whole birds that long were the mainstay of the chicken and turkey business. Consumers today can find hundreds of Foster Farms products – whole and cut-up birds, marinated meat, deli products, ground turkey and chicken, and breaded and frozen items.

The company fought successfully in the 1990s to get out-of-state rivals to stop putting a “fresh” label on whole birds that were frozen stiff. It still is working to end the use of “natural” on chicken that is plumped with saltwater and other additives.

Foster Farms has been certified for humane treatment of its live animals and is part of the movement to reduce the distance from farm to plate.

“Talk about great, iconic marketing, to remind Californians that their local source of poultry is right in their backyard,” said Karen Ross, secretary of food and agriculture for Gov. Jerry Brown.

New measures

O’Connor said Foster Farms has invested about $75 million in upgrades, mainly at the San Joaquin Valley operations, to get salmonella under control.

It starts at the farms, run by other companies, that breed the chickens that in turn hatch the birds that grow into broilers. These businesses have to certify that their flocks are salmonella-free. Foster Farms also has increased vaccinations.

The broiler ranches already were highly controlled to prevent avian influenza and other poultry diseases, including new changes of clothing for workers upon entry, and strict limits on who can come and go.

If the increased salmonella testing finds a problem, O’Connor said, a barn can be cleared of everything, including the rice-hull litter that cushions the feet of some 20,000 young chickens roaming the floor. The place is then disinfected, and the downtime before bringing in the next flock is extended from about two weeks to two months.

O’Connor talked about chicken-raising in general at one of the barns near Atwater. The birds, 9 days old as of Monday, will reach about 45 days before heading out for processing. They eat mostly corn and soy, drink from nipples attached to water pipes and enjoy temperatures that vary with their life stage.

The recent outbreak prompted Foster Farms to appoint a food-safety advisory panel led by Dr. David Acheson, former chief medical officer at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

“We have been poking at the system,” he said Monday. “We have been asking the tough questions.”

He repeated the oft-stated advice to consumers: Cook chicken to at least 165 degrees, and scrub utensils, hands and other surfaces that come in contact with the raw meat.

“I have yet to meet the salmonella that is going to resist 165 degrees,” Acheson said. “It doesn’t exist.”

‘The standard’

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said some families have worked for multiple generations for the company, and the work force includes people of Latino, Sikh, Portuguese and other backgrounds. He also noted the good relations between the company and its labor unions.

“Nobody does it better than Foster Farms,” said Costa, whose district includes Merced County. “You set the bar. You set the standard.”

The anniversary brought a new effort, the Take 75 Campaign, that urges families to spend at least that many minutes at the dinner table each week. Foster Farms also is seeking donations to food banks, including Second Harvest in Manteca, to buy complete chicken dinners for people in need. More information is at www.take75.com.

In a videotaped tribute, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein noted Foster Farms’ leadership in the industry along with its philanthropic work.

“No matter how big Foster Farms has grown on the national stage, it has not forgotten what’s most important, and that’s caring about the community you call home,” she said.