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By JoNel Aleccia

Three Foster Farms poultry plants in California can remain open after the firm agreed to fix problems tied to an outbreak of salmonella that has sickened nearly 300 people in 17 states since March, federal agriculture officials said Thursday.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said inspectors will remain onsite at two plants in Fresno and one in Livingston, Calif., allowing the firms to operate, but continuing intensified sampling for illness-causing bacteria for three months. 

"Foster Farms has submitted and implemented immediate, substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations," Aaron Lavallee, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said in a statement. "FSIS inspectors will verify that these changes are being implemented in a continuous and ongoing basis."

The move follows a Monday public health alert and a threat to close the plants after inspectors detected high levels of seven strains of salmonella Heidelberg bacteria tied to reports of 278 illnesses in 17 states, mostly California. Illnesses were reported from March 1 through Sept. 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

About 42 percent of people sickened in the outbreak have been hospitalized, twice as many as normal with salmonella infections, according to the CDC. Some of the strains of salmonella Heidelberg showed signs of drug resistance, and some of the people who became ill found they couldn't be treated with some antibiotics. 

The illnesses have been reported in people who ate chicken, typically sold as raw parts, produced by Foster Farms and brands likely produced by Foster Farms. 

Company officials said the agreement with USDA follows food safety improvements at the firm's plants. 

“We started this process more than two months ago and this officially validates our progress, but we are not stopping here,” said Ron Foster, Foster Farms' president and chief executive. “We are putting every resource and all of our energy toward food safety with the confidence that Foster Farms plants will be the most stringent in the industry.”

No recall for any of the products made at the three plants has been issued. Although the firm could implement a voluntary recall, officials said that the chicken is safe to eat if properly handled and adequately cooked. 

"As recently as Oct. 8, USDA-FSIS publicly assured the safety of our chicken," Foster Farms officials said in a statement. "There is no recall in effect and FSIS continues to inspect our poultry on a daily basis, certifying it as Grade A wholesome."

This is the second outbreak of salmonella Heidelberg detected at Foster Farms plants in less than a year. The first, which ended in July, sickened 134 people in 13 states, according to the CDC. 

All raw poultry can be contaminated with salmonella, food safety experts say. To avoid illness, consumers should practice good kitchen hygiene, avoid cross-contamination from poultry and cook raw chicken to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. 

But experts also say that firms that consistently show signs of certain bacteria may not be doing a thorough enough job of controlling the pathogen in their facilities. After the previous outbreak, Foster Farms implemented changes at its Kelso, Wash., plant that produced what USDA officials called "a more effective and consistent process control" and reduced contamination.

Samples showed a 1.3 percent salmonella positive rate in that plant after the changes, or two positive samples out of 150 tested. Only one of the positive samples was the salmonella Heidelberg associated with that outbreak, USDA noted.