PHOENIX – On March 1, an Arizona federal court jury returned a verdict in the amount of $6.5 million in favor of a 5-and-a-half-year-old child who suffered a brain injury because of a Salmonella Heidelberg infection from chicken produced by Foster Poultry Farms.
The jury concluded that Foster Farms was negligent in producing Salmonella Heidelberg-contaminated chicken and that, based on epidemiological and microbiological evidence alone, it caused the boy’s illness. The jury attributed 30 percent of the fault to Foster Farms and 70 percent to family members for their preparation of the chicken. The net verdict for the family was $1.95 million.
Pritzker Hageman, P.A., a Minneapolis law firm representing Noah Craten, the young child, said the verdict establishes a precedent that chicken producers can be held responsible for Salmonella contamination on raw chicken even though the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) does not consider Salmonella an adulterant since the bacteria can be killed by cooking the chicken.
“Traditionally, Foster Farms and other poultry producers have argued that they are under absolutely no obligation to address even pervasive Salmonella contamination,” lead trial attorney Eric Hageman said. “The jury in this case said enough is enough. Clean up your act. The jury’s verdict showed that Foster Farms cannot simply hide behind USDA ‘approval’ of its chicken” and was “a rejection of the argument that poultry companies can produce contaminated product and then blame consumers who get sick from eating it.”
The Plaintiffs introduced evidence that Foster Farms’ entire operation was infested with particularly dangerous strains of Salmonella Heidelberg, including the strain that sickened Craten. The jury considered evidence of prior foodborne illness outbreaks linked to Foster Farms and epidemiological evidence that Craten was part of a large Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak identified by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other health departments.
Foster Farms released a statement regarding the ruling:
"Foster Farms recognizes the federal verdict in the matter of Noah Craten vs. Foster Farms. In reaching a verdict of $6.5 million associated with a 2013 Salmonella illness, the jury assessed 70 percent of the damages ($4.55 million) as being the responsibility of the Craten family, while assigning 30 percent of the damages ($1.95 million) to Foster Farms.
It is important to note that family shopping records presented at the trial, covering the six month period prior to the onset of illness, failed to demonstrate the purchase of Foster Farms chicken. Regardless of the source of illness, Foster Farms is pleased that Noah Craten has recovered.
It is in the interest of all poultry producers to ensure that the safest possible product reaches the marketplace. Since 2013, Foster Farms has instituted a multi-hurdle Salmonella control program and committed to a company-wide Salmonella prevalence level of 5 percent in whole body chickens and parts. This compares to the USDA permissible level of 9.8 percent for whole body chickens and 15.4 percent for parts.
Foster Farms’ current food safety performance record is recognized as being among the best in the US poultry industry, and the company is committed to advancing food safety for the benefit of consumers, customers and the poultry industry."
According to the CDC, 639 people from 29 states were sickened in the Foster Farms Salmonella outbreak from March 1, 2013, to July 11, 2014.
In 2014, Foster Farms said it invested $75 million into new equipment and other efforts to reduce Salmonella rates in the United States. Later in 2015 the company stated that it would commit to a Salmonella prevalence level below 5 percent. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service standard was listed at 15.4 percent for poultry parts.