Another 50 people have been sickened by salmonella poisoning linked to Foster Farms chicken, bringing the total to 574 cases in 27 states in a little more than a year, federal health officials said Tuesday.
The new cases were reported at an average of eight each week since an April update on the new infections caused by seven strains of drug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg, according to an update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nearly 40 percent of those sickened by the foodborne bacteria have been hospitalized in the outbreak that began in March 2013. Some 13 percent have developed life-threatening blood infections, about triple the number in typical salmonella illnesses, the CDC said.
The number of illnesses each week appears to be declining, but the outbreak is still not over, said Dr. Rob Tauxe, the CDC’s director of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases.
And the new infections appear to be tied to fresh, retail chicken parts, not chicken that had been stored in home freezers for months, Tauxe added.
Officials with Foster Farms and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, said that the firm has implemented new steps to reduce salmonella throughout its plants. Because the new cases can’t be linked to one lot or even one plant, FSIS officials say they can’t urge Foster Farms to recall the potentially tainted poultry. And Foster Farms officials have consistently refused to recall the meat voluntarily.
“The company continues to make steady progress that has effectively reduced Salmonella at the parts level to less than 10 percent — well below the 2011/2012 USDA-measured industry benchmark of 25 percent,” Foster Farms officials said in a statement. “With each set of sampling, Foster Farms has demonstrated a significant improvement in Salmonella control.”
FSIS officials seemed puzzled, too.
"FSIS continues to closely monitor the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak as well as the three Foster Farms facilities that are a likely source," agency officials said in a statement. "Because our intensified sampling is showing low levels of Salmonella at the three facilities, FSIS is considering whether illnesses are being caused by other sources."
No one at FSIS could suggest what those other sources might be.
Still, there’s no question consumers continue to fall ill, said Doug Powell, a former food safety professor at Kansas State University who is now a consultant.
“It is ridiculous that this has been going on for a year,” Powell told NBC News. “This is a virulent pathogen that they can’t seem to get rid of.”
Consumers should vote with their wallets and patronize poultry producers with good track records free of reports of foodborne illness, Powell said.
In the meantime, the CDC cautions consumers to cook all chicken thoroughly, to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and to be vigilant about avoiding cross-contamination of raw poultry and other food or kitchen surfaces.