WASHINGTON – Federal and state food safety authorities are advising consumers to properly handle and cook raw poultry due to an ongoing outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg associated with Foster Farms raw chicken products.

The US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a public health alert after an estimated 278 illnesses were reported in 18 states, mostly in California. So far, the investigation has revealed that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken and other chicken produced at Foster Farms' facilities are the likely source of the outbreak, FSIS reported. Local, state and federal traceback investigations linked the illnesses to Foster Farms’ products.

For its part, Foster Farms said in a statement on its website that no recall is in effect, and that the poultry products are safe if properly handled and fully cooked. The company emphasized that food safety is Foster Farms' highest priority, and that the company is working in partnership with the FSIS and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control to reduce the incidence of Salmonella Heidelberg at the company's three plants in central California.

“We are committed to ensuring the safety of our products, and our family-owned company has maintained an excellent food safety record during its near 80-year history,” said Foster Farms President Ron Foster. “We deeply regret any foodborne illness that may be associated with any of our products. Food safety is at the very heart of our business. It is a continuous process of improvement. In addition to collaborating with FSIS and CDC, the company has retained national experts in epidemiology and food safety technology to assess current practices and identify opportunities for further improvement.”

Currently, investigators are unable to link the illnesses to a specific product or production period. However, FSIS said raw products from the processing plants in question bear one of the establishment numbers inside a USDA mark of inspection. The numbers are “P6137”, “P6137A”, “P7632”, and the products were mainly distributed to retail outlets in California, Oregon and Washington State.