A year-long outbreak of salmonella poisoning linked to Foster Farms chicken has now sickened more than 500 people in 25 states and health officials say recently purchased raw poultry appears to be the culprit.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Wednesday that the outbreak that involves seven rare strains of drug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg appears to be continuing, despite efforts to stop it.
“Basically, what we’re saying is the outbreak is not over,” said Dr. Rob Tauxe, the CDC’s deputy director of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases. “As the new cases have been reported, almost all of them report eating chicken and almost all say it’s Foster Farms.”
CDC officials had originally declared the outbreak that began in March 2013 over in January, but then officials detected more than the expected number of infections caused by the rare salmonella strains.
Despite the illnesses, U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service officials say they have not asked Foster Farms to recall any potentially contaminated meat, nor has the company volunteered.
A spokesman told NBC News that the agency does not have the “definitive link” that is needed to urge a recall.
Fresh chicken parts, not frozen poultry stored in freezers, appear to be responsible for the 524 cases reported as of April 7, Tauxe said. At least 37 percent of the victims, or 194 people, have been hospitalized.
More than three-quarters of the cases have been reported in California, where FSIS officials threatened to shut down three Foster Farms chicken plants last fall because inspectors detected high levels of salmonella. USDA and company officials said that Foster Farms later brought its levels into compliance.
Foster Farms is under no obligation to issue recalls and there is no regulatory requirement that raw meat and poultry be free of salmonella, experts say. Consumers should be careful to handle raw poultry properly, avoid cross-contamination of utensils and surfaces, and cook meat thoroughly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
“To a degree, it’s in the lap of the consumer when they’re consuming chicken from anywhere,” Tauxe said. “We’re not living in a world where we can presume that chicken is not contaminated with something that can make us sick.”