In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Safe Food Coalition said Foster Farms should recall its products to protect public health. The group also detailed their concerns about the Food Safety and Inspection Service's response to the outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg linked to Foster Farms poultry products.
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control confirmed 317 cases of Salmonella Heidelberg infection in 20 states. Forty-two percent of those affected were hospitalized, which the CDC said was an unusually high hospitalization rate for an outbreak. Seven strains of Salmonella Heidelberg were linked to Foster Farms poultry; and the outbreak strains are resistant to antibiotics used to treat such infections.
"We appreciate that in the absence of a definitive link between illnesses and specific product, FSIS took action by issuing a public health alert to notify the public about Foster Farms' association to the outbreak," the letter said. "However, considering the number of people sickened by this outbreak, the high hospitalization rate, the antibiotic resistant strains of Salmonella, FSIS' testing results in the plants, and the fact that the outbreak is ongoing, we question why a recall did not occur."
FSIS previously stated the agency did not have enough evidence to make a legal case for a recall.
The coalition's letter went on to criticize FSIS' response to the outbreak. FSIS issued Notices of Intended Enforcement Action (NOIES) to three Foster Farms plants based on the agency's findings that adequate process controls were not being maintained, the letter noted.
"We find it strange that Foster Farms' recent response to the agency would be so satisfactory as to cause the agency to not suspend inspection from plants that were clearly inadequate when FSIS issued the NOIES," the letter said. "We also question how quickly Foster Farms can implement these new procedures to bring the plants' systems into control."
Ron Foster, president of Foster Farms, said the company installed "six new processes" throughout the California facilities that are "known to effectively lower the incidence of Salmonella."
The coalition made recommendations FSIS could use to reduce consumers’ risk from contaminated poultry, including declaring antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella as adulterants and seeking Congressional authority to enforce performance standards, mandatory recall authority and financial penalties.