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Foster Farms' salmonella problem really is everyone's problem

October 11, 2013|By Paul Whitefield
  • Foster Farms processing plant in Livingston, Calif. The plant is one of three in California linked to a salmonella outbreak.
Foster Farms processing plant in Livingston, Calif. The plant is one of… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

I hate to squawk, but what in the name of “EE-I-EE-I-O”  is going on with food safety in this country?

The latest news that has folks clucking is the salmonella outbreak linked to three of Foster Farms’ chicken processing plants in central California.

As The Times reported Thursday, “at least 278 people reportedly have been sickened in 18 states since March by a strain of Salmonella Heidelberg.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to close two Foster Farm plants in Fresno and one in Livingston, Calif., but decided not to after the company met a deadline to show improvements at the facilities.

Now (perhaps like you), all I knew about Foster Farms before this story was a) my wife makes me BBQ its chicken and b) the company airs those funny TV ads with the scruffy-looking birds that can’t quite measure up to Foster Farms’ farm-fresh, all-natural standards.

Proving, I suppose, that either a) my wife is trying to poison me or b) I should remember not to believe what I see on TV.

Here’s the kicker, though, from The Times story:

In a letter to the company that’s now circulating on the Internet, the USDA admonished the nation’s 10th-largest poultry producer for unsanitary conditions at those plants and cited a dozen instances this year in which fecal material was found on carcasses.

“Your establishment has failed to demonstrate that it has adequate controls in place to address salmonella in your poultry products,” the letter said.

Which, OK, sounds bad. As in: I’m never eating Foster Farms chicken again.

But then there’s this:

Federal officials said conditions such as those listed in the USDA’s letter to Foster Farms are not uncommon in the poultry industry. Samples at the three plants found rates of salmonella in chicken parts on par with industry standards. Whole chickens fared even better.

Which, OK, sounds worse. In other words, while Foster Farms is getting the bad pub right now, the whole industry is nothing to write home about.

Plus there’s this: “This is not your grandmother's salmonella anymore,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “It’s a new salmonella, much more potent, and modified with the use of antibiotics on the farm.”

Which, OK, means that I’m now officially a vegan.

Except that folks have also been dying this year, and last year, from bad lettuce and bad cantaloupes. Did Joseph Heller ever consider a Catch-23? Perhaps those prison hunger strikers had the right idea after all.

Look, it’s not as if we didn’t know that antibiotics and factory farming can be a devil’s brew. The Times has editorialized about it often.  We’ve also written about improving food safety regulations in this country.

Now, I know, changing the food culture is expensive. And it certainly doesn’t help that the tea party nuts in Congress have the government shut down.

But can we at least agree that we shouldn’t allow the stuff we eat to make us sick? Even the penny-pinchers in Congress ought to be willing to sign on to that. As in: I’ll trade you a couple of aircraft carriers for some inspectors who’ll make sure that my chicken sandwich won’t kill me.

After all, you know what they say: A guy’s gotta eat.


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