WASHINGTON – The US Department of Agriculture is threatening to shutter three Foster Farms processing plants that were linked to an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg that has so far sickened 278 people. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has the authority to withhold marks of inspection and to refuse to provide inspection.

USDA gave the company until Oct. 10 to explain to the agency how Foster Farms plans to fix the problems at its facilities, according to a Notice of Intended Enforcement delivered to the company on Oct. 7. The letter noted that tests of raw poultry processed at the facilities found one or more outbreak strains of Salmonella. The letter states: "Although presence of the outbreak strains alone is not evidence that product is adulterated, presence on product coupled with illnesses suggests that the sanitary conditions in the establishment under which the product is produced could pose a serious ongoing threat to public health."

USDA also expressed concerns about the company's food safety record before the outbreak. Foster Farms received multiple noncompliance citations issued for insanitary conditions. FSIS documented 12 noncomplicance records from Jan. 1 through Sept. 27 for findings of fecal material on poultry carcasses.

"Furthermore, FSIS has identified multiple noncompliances including but not limited to findings of poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary non-food contact surfaces and direct product contamination as evidenced by the documentation of a considerable number of recurring NRs issued to your establishment..."

Ron Foster, CEO of Foster Farms, issued an apology for the illnesses.

"On behalf of the Foster family, our company, and our more than 12,000 employees, I want to reassure you that we are taking every possible step to ensure the current and future safety of our chicken products. Food safety is, and has always been, at the heart of our business," Foster said. "I am deeply sorry for any illness associated with Foster Farms chicken and for any concern or confusion caused by this week's activity.

"We have a 75-year history for excellence because of our commitment to continuous advancement in food safety. We are putting every resource we have toward the continued safety of our fresh chicken."
Foster re-emphasized that no recall is in effect, and that Foster Farms poultry products are safe to eat if properly handled and fully cooked.

Despite no recall being in effect, at least one retailer has pulled Foster Farms products from its shelves. On Oct. 8, The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, said it was removing products from Fred Meyer, Fry's, King Soopers/City Market, Ralphs, Food 4 Less, Smith's and New Mexico, and QFC stores and warehouses in the regions of the country where it sells Foster Farms chicken from the three affected plants.