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Foster Farms chicken sickens nearly 300 with salmonella

Foster Farms raw chicken products made at three California sites may have sickened nearly 300 people in 18 states, according to a public health alert issued Monday by U.S. Department of Agriculture officials. 

At least 278 illnesses caused by salmonella Heidelberg linked to the chicken brand have been reported, mostly in California, according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The products were distributed mainly to outlets in California, Oregon and Washington state. 

The notice follows an outbreak earlier this year traced to Foster Farms raw chicken in which 134 people in 13 states became ill, but it appears to be a separate, new incident, said Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That outbreak, which was declared over in July, sickened 40 people in Oregon and 57 in Washington state and sent 33 patients to the hospital.

Neither agency could provide many details about the latest outbreak because of limited staffing caused by a week-long government shutdown.

Illnesses were linked to the Foster Farm brand through epidemiologic, laboratory and trace-back methods, FSIS said. But health officials were unable to tie the illnesses to a specific product or a specific production period. They said that the products bear one of three establishment numbers inside a USDA mark of inspection or elsewhere on the package. The numbers are: P6137, P6137A and P7632.

The outbreak is ongoing, FSIS officials said in a statement. No recalls for specific chicken products have been issued.

Foster Farms officials said in a statement that the company has been collaborating with FSIS and CDC to eradicate salmonella Heidelberg at its sites and has retained national experts to “assess current practices and identify opportunities for further improvement.”

“When the incidence of illnesses linked to Salmonella increased, we wanted to know why and have worked quickly to identify and implement additional controls,” Robert O’ Connor, the company’s food safety chief and head veterinarian said. “It is also important to reassure the public that the FSIS process has not been affected by the recent government shutdown.”

The company and FSIS warned that consumers should be careful to fully cook raw poultry to 165 degrees, which will kill the bacteria.

Salmonella Heidelberg is a common strain that causes illness that can be life-threatening in people with weak immune systems such as children, the elderly and those with cancer or HIV infection. Most common symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within eight hours to three days after eating the contaminated product. Chills, headache, nausea and vomiting can last up to a week.

Foster Farms is a West Coast poultry producer with plants in Oregon, Washington, California and Alabama.

JoNel Aleccia is a senior health writer with NBC News. Follow her on Twitter at @JoNel_Aleccia or send her an email.