LIVINGSTON, Calif. — Foster Farms, one of the nation's largest poultry producers, has launched a major campaign to boost consumer confidence damaged in the wake of reports that much of the country's chicken supply is contaminated with salmonella, a harmful bacteria.
The effort was evidenced, in part, by a recent media tour of the company's extensive facilities here in the San Joaquin Valley. The daylong look at some of Foster Farms' most proprietary technology marks one of the few times the family-owned-and-operated firm has opened its doors to the press.
Other aspects of the expanded promotional activity have included full-page newspaper advertisements addressing the contamination question and increasing emphasis on building the Foster Farms brand-name as a premium line.
"The (Foster) family didn't tell their story in the past because they are private, low-key individuals," said technical director David M. Theno. "But we were tainted by the same brush (as less-safety-conscious companies) by reports of high contamination levels. . . . So, the best way to counter this publicity is to show our operation and all the effort that goes into it."
The company, which markets 460,000 chickens a day, has found the high-profile moves necessary in order to distance itself, in particular, from the widely reported National Academy of Sciences study which faulted producers and the federal government's inspection system for the bacteria's widespread presence in poultry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, estimates that between 35% and 37% of the nation's chicken contains salmonella, a pathogen that can cause nausea, vomiting and fever. The bacteria can be fatal for individuals with impaired immune systems, such as infants, the elderly, cancer patients and those suffering from AIDS.
Each year, 40,000 cases of salmonella poisoning are reported to health officials in this country, but millions more go undocumented. In fact, one federal estimate places the total number of salmonella-related illnesses in excess of 2 million annually. Chicken, however, is directly linked to only a small percentage of these incidents.
Even so, the problem is such that the national academy's report, issued in July, recommended that producers provide a warning on poultry packaging indicating that the raw meat must be properly handled and cooked in order to avoid any bacteria transfer. One Washington-based consumer group, the Community Nutrition Institute, even called for a chicken boycott until the USDA solved the safety questions.
For its part, the federal government plans a detailed response to the academy of sciences' study, along with some regulatory changes, in early October, according to Nancy Robinson, director of information and legislative affairs for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service in Washington.
"There is no question that consumers' confidence levels are damaged; but to what extent none of us can put a number on it," Robinson said. "This issue has emerged in a way that there is some hysteria around, and that is not healthy."
In the meantime, Foster Farms is not waiting for the government to rescue chicken's image. For starters, the 48-year-old company claims the presence of salmonella in the Western United States is lower, at about 17.5%, than in other major producing regions. Less humidity and cleaner water supplies are two environmental factors that account for the lower contaminant levels. More specifically, Foster Farms' laboratory personnel state that the presence of the bacteria in their company's poultry is actually below the 17.5% level, but did not provide an exact figure.
The firm's commitment to lessening bacterial risk is such, according to Theno, that a portion of the national academy's recommendations were based on already established Foster Farms manufacturing practices.
Robinson of the USDA also acknowledged that the firm is considered an industry leader in its use of technology.
Some of the firm's extra efforts include: ensuring that all eggs brought to the company's hatcheries are certified free of contaminants; regular testing of flocks for antibiotic residues, pesticides and organic contaminants; rinsing all automated chicken-cutting equipment with a chlorine solution after the machinery comes in contact with each carcass, and further soaking of the birds in a chlorine solution after they are plucked, beheaded and eviscerated. (Federal law requires that the chlorine levels be kept at or below 20 parts per million in the solution. The chemical's residue on the chicken quickly dissipates to levels that are not detectable after the birds leave the bath.)
There are several such critical steps in the processing cycle that warrant special attention in the industry's and government's heightened efforts against salmonella, according to Robinson.