A worker applies foaming cleaner to processing equipment.
A worker applies foaming cleaner to processing equipment as part of Foster Farms' daily sanitation regimen.

In the wake of a much-publicized Salmonella outbreak that lasted for more than a year in 2013 and 2014 and left its image bruised and battered, Livingston, Calif.-based poultry processor Foster Farms is now being hailed as a leader in food safety, especially when it comes to Salmonella detection and traceback.

The Salmonella outbreak, involving a dangerous strain of the pathogen called Salmonella Heidelberg, caused more than 600 illnesses in 29 states and Puerto Rico. Foster Farms’ woes became the subject of a PBS Frontline documentary, “The Trouble with Chicken,” that aired last spring. Foster Farms also acknowledged that it experienced a 25 percent dip in sales because of the outbreak.

But in the last two years, Foster Farms has invested about $125 million in food safety to make its products safer. Since April 2014, the company says it 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.

“The government is still actively working to set in place a Salmonella parts prevalence level at about 15.4 percent,” says Ira Brill, Foster Farms’ director of communications. “And we have been and are committed to remaining at a prevalence level for broilers that is under 5 percent at the parts level.”

Brill believes Foster Farms is the safest poultry processor in the US. “We have come an enormous distance,” he says.

Robert O’Connor, senior vice president of technical services at Foster Farms, has guided the food safety turnaround, but considers it a consummate team effort.

“Whether you’re talking about breeder operations, processing plants and beyond…you have to consider all of the people in the company who have weathered the negative press and uneasy customers,” he says. “They were on the front line, too, just in a different way. I always tell people that this was really a team effort.”

One thing O’Connor will never forget is the intense regulatory pressure of having three processing plants under a Notice of Intended Enforcement (NOIE) imposed by the US Dept. of Agriculture.

“Daily life in the plant changes when you’re under a Notice of Intended Enforcement. There is intensified scrutiny and inspection. You really have to be on your game,” says O’Connor, who has worked at Foster Farms for 17 years.

It’s all about the data

While Foster Farms has implemented a multi-hurdle intervention program to detect Salmonella, O’Connor says the key to the success of the food safety program is gathering, analyzing and implementing decisions based on data. Two years ago, Foster Farms didn’t have the elaborate program it has in place now to collect data to determine food safety risks.

“If you get a call from government regulators or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and they say, ‘We are attributing a food safety outbreak to you.’ Unless you have gathered a lot of data prior to that, that call can come as a real surprise,” O’Connor says. “And you really don’t want to be surprised. You want to know leading up to it that you have entered high-risk waters by using your own data.”

O’Connor believes Foster Farms stands out from other poultry processors in the amount of data it collects from live production and processing.

“It’s not that we never used to collect data, but we didn’t do it as expansively as we do today. We did it more situationally,” he says.

Above all the interventions that the company has invested, O’Connor says Foster Farms wouldn’t be in the place it is today if it didn’t ratchet up its data monitoring, collection and analysis.

Brill says collecting data is essential. “The reality is that it’s only through accurate measurement and accurate reporting that we are actually going to be able to determine how much progress we are truly making,” he adds.

While O’Connor admits it’s easy to get bogged down in data, he says the goal remains to persevere through collection to find patterns and trends. And in order to not get bogged down and not come to haphazard conclusions, it’s important to reach out to external resources, which Foster Farms does. The company is using laboratory services at the Univ. of California, Davis to help analyze the data.

O’Connor and his staff are also working with Metabiota, a Silicon Valley firm that uses analytics to track human diseases. Metabiota is helping Foster Farms do the same thing in poultry.

“What Metabiota has done in human medicine is build systems that allow for health agencies to predict where a global virus might emerge,” O’Connor says. “They have shown me some powerful tools for upping our game in terms of data analysis.”

O’Connor says he would like to see a diagnostic test developed for live production that provides qualitative data through a drag swab of whether a broiler house is infected with a little Salmonella or a lot of it. That way, he would be able to ramp up intervention when the broilers from that house made it to the processing plant.

“I think that would be really valuable for the industry overall,” he adds. “Then you would have a predictor. I’d like to understand my hot spots before they hit the plant. That’s my ultimate data dream.”

Putting up hurdles

Foster Farms' increased focus on food safety helped restore its image.
Foster Farms' increased focus on food safety helped restore its image after an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg.

Foster Farms has also increased interventions to control Salmonella. For instance, the company tests rehang samples in the processing plant for Salmonella after birds are de-feathered and scalded. “It’s the closest point to the front door of the plant where we measure Salmonella,” O’Connor explains.

Every day, 10 4-lb. samples of chicken parts are sampled during production. “What I like about this is…if I look at that data over a long period of time, I get some good statistics on prevalence,” O’Connor says.

Also, all broilers are vaccinated for Salmonella, a procedure that began in May 2014. “I’m not aware of others who do this – it’s a very expensive intervention,” O’Connor says. “I don’t think you spend that kind of money if you are doing it for show.”

In addition, probiotics have been added to feed at the breeder level. Probiotics are often called “helpful” bacteria because they help keep animals’ stomachs healthy. O’Connor says this too has been a significant investment.

At the “high-science” level, O’Connor says Foster Farms is studying specific strains of Salmonella Heidelberg involved in the outbreak. “We’re looking at them from a molecular whole genome sequence standpoint to see if there were things about those strains that made them more virulent. Maybe they are acid tolerant or resistant to antibiotics,” he says.

While O’Connor doesn’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution to tracing Salmonella – for instance, not all processors are looking to detect Salmonella Heidelberg – he is more than willing to share information about what Foster Farms is doing with other processors and has done just that.

“We’re constantly trying to find a better mousetrap,” he says. “If I can prevent someone from having to go through what we went through, then I want to help. We share data among ourselves very constructively.”

As far as maintaining a companywide Salmonella prevalence level of less than 5 percent, O’Connor says he often asks himself the question: To what level does the company need to keep its prevalence at a level that actually translates into reduced risk for consumers?

“When you’re talking about prevalence, you’re not talking about zero tolerance,” he says. “If the standard is 15.4 for parts, will I reduce the risk of poultry causing Salmonella in people if I aim for that or less? I’m more comfortable at a number less than [15.4 percent].”

Foster Farms is vigilant in its efforts to stay under the 5 percent threshold.

“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.

Foster Farms has also formed an active food safety advisory board, which features some industry heavy-hitters, including Mike Robach, Cargill vice president of food safety and regulatory affairs. They meet four times a year.

Foster Farms’ increased emphasis on food safety has helped restore the company’s image, says Brill, who notes the company is having one of its best years ever in sales.

“I think the American public has a great reserve of faith in companies that may have stumbled as long as they come back and they put their best effort into correcting what might have been an issue,” Brill says. “I think that is something we have done in an exemplary way and remain committed to. Our goal is to make Foster Farms one of the most-trusted brands in the US.”