KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Some may view Ira Brill’s statement as audacious when the director of communications for Foster Farms says that the Livingston, Calif.-based poultry processor offers the safest chicken products in the United States.
Yes, this is the same Foster Farms that endured a much-publicized Salmonella outbreak that lasted for more than a year in 2013 and 2014, leaving the Livingston, Calif.-based poultry processor’s image bruised and battered. The Salmonella outbreak, involving a dangerous strain of the pathogen called Salmonella Heidelberg, caused more than 600 illnesses in 29 states. Foster Farms’ woes became the subject of a PBS Frontline documentary, “The Trouble with Chicken,” that aired last spring. Foster Farms also acknowledged in a news report that it experienced a 25 percent dip in sales because of the outbreak.
But something happened to Foster Farms on the company’s road to possible ruin. The company reinvented itself from a food safety standpoint. Brill’s statement may sound bold, but he just may be right.
“We have come an enormous distance,” he says.
No argument there, considering that since April 2014, Foster Farms has maintained a companywide Salmonella prevalence level of less than 5 percent, the result of the comprehensive food safety program that has reduced Salmonella levels system-wide from the breeders to the farms where the birds are raised and to the plants where the chickens are processed and packaged. Last January, the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) proposed a 15.4 percent standard for Salmonella prevalence in raw poultry parts, but Foster Farms has vowed to do better.
Robert O’Connor, senior vice president of technical services at Foster Farms, has guided the food safety turnaround. As far as maintaining a companywide Salmonella prevalence level of less than 5 percent, O’Connor remains vigilant.
“Do I ever have a week where one of our three plants is at 7 percent? Yes. Do I get a call from the [top managers] of the company when they see that number? Yes. Do we do a deep-dive investigation to figure it out? Yes. We are still very focused on 5 percent. We haven’t backed off in terms of the pressure or intensity or focus,” O’Connor explains.
Despite where Foster Farms has been, the company deserves credit for where it is now and where it is going. While heavily criticized, right or wrong, during the Salmonella outbreak, the company deserves credit for raising the bar for the sake of food safety.
The meat and poultry industry should take notice.