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U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are threatening to shut down three Foster Farms chicken plants in California linked to an outbreak of salmonella that has sickened nearly 300 people in 17 states.
In letters sent to Foster Farms chief executive Ron Foster Monday, USDA officials said they’d detected high levels of the salmonella Heidelberg bacteria tied to illness at two plants in Fresno and one in Livingston. They said the company had until Thursday to respond or the agency would withhold inspections, effectively shuttering the plants.
“The prevalence of Salmonella in finished poultry products poses a risk to public health,” USDA officials wrote.
Foster Farms officials have issued no recalls of the products, mostly raw chicken pieces, distributed primarily in Washington, Oregon and California. Firm officials said Wednesday that they are cooperating fully with government investigators.
On Monday, USDA officials issued a public health alert warning consumers about the risk for illness.
The Agriculture Department can halt production by withdrawing meat inspectors, an enforcement action that can be taken "when a facility does not maintain sanitary conditions," the USDA said.
Sampling by USDA in September showed that raw chicken processed by those plants contained one or more of the seven strains of salmonella linked to the outbreak. As of this week, 278 people in 17 states had been sickened, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most cases are in California, where 213 people became ill. (CDC officials originally listed 18 states, but later amended the count.)
About 42 percent of those sickened had to be hospitalized, about double the typical rate for salmonella. Some of the strains detected are also drug-resistant, meaning they cause illnesses that may be hard to treat with certain antibiotics.
CDC officials originally said that the illnesses occurred mostly in July, but new data show reports of sickness started in March and continued through Sept. 24, though more recent cases might not yet be reported.
Investigations found that 80 percent of those who got sick consumed chicken at home the week before illness, compared with 65 percent of a healthy control group. At the same time, nearly 80 percent of those who provided information about the brand of chicken named Foster Farms or another brand likely produced by Foster Farms.
States with reported illnesses include Alaska (2), Arkansas (1), Arizona (11), California (213), Colorado (4), Connecticut (1), Florida (1), Hawaii (1), Idaho (2), Michigan (2), North Carolina (1), Nevada (8), Oregon (8), Texas (5), Utah (2), Washington (15) and Wisconsin (1).
Raw chicken products from the three plants bear the following USDA inspection marks: P6137, P6137A, and P7632.
This is the second outbreak of salmonella tied to raw Foster Farms chicken in less than a year. A previous outbreak that began in January and ended in July sickened 134 people in 13 states.
For every illness reported, the CDC estimates there may be 25 undocumented salmonella cases, which means that the two Foster Farms outbreaks taken together may have sickened more than 10,000 people.
Throughout both outbreaks, Foster Farms officials have issued no recalls of potentially tainted products, instead advising consumers to handle chicken properly and to cook it thoroughly to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
The company is under no obligation to issue recalls; there is no regulatory requirement that raw meat and poultry be free of salmonella, unlike rules for ground products, said Craig Hedberg, a food safety expert and professor of public health at the University of Minnesota. But the firm could issue voluntary recalls — and should, Hedberg said.
"From a business standpoint, it sends a tremendously bad message to your customers," Hedberg said. "They obviously have this strain present in their chickens and they're not adequately controlling it in their plants and it's getting out to customers."
All commercial chicken products are at risk for contamination with salmonella. The bacteria are often present in poultry flocks and may be spread through water or feed and then carried throughout a production plant, noted Benjamin Chapman, an assistant professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University.
But when enough of the bacteria make it to the final product to sicken consumers — and to send them to the hospital — there's a problem.
"There's something in the microbiology of these strains that make it so that people are getting more sick than we would typically see," he said.
Leaving the chicken on the market and telling consumers to be careful is essentially blaming the victims who got sick, experts said. There's no question that home cooks should assume that chicken may be tainted and be careful about cross-contaminating surfaces and cooking the meat thoroughly, Hedberg said.
"The fact that we have this large number of cases that can be traced back to people purchasing this
chicken suggests that there's a reasonable level of exposure, whether it's from cross-contamination or just not proper cooking — or maybe a high level of bacteria to begin with."
USDA officials noted that Foster Farms made improvements at its Kelso, Wash., plant after the first salmonella outbreak, greatly reducing the pathogen. The agency urged that similar actions be taken in California.
Foster Farms officials issued a statement late Wednesday saying the company's first priority is the safety of its customers. They noted that during the six-month outbreak period from March through September, 25 million people "safely consumed" Foster Farms chicken.
"Foster Farms is dedicated to resolving any concerns by the USDA," the statement said. "We are fully cooperating with FSIS during this process and are responding with new and already implemented practices in the affected plants. Some of these interventions have been in place for nearly two months and are proving to be successful. In addition, we have brought in national food safety experts to assess our processes."
However, Foster Farms officials did not respond Wednesday to NBC News requests for explanations of why the firm has not issued recalls of the potentially tainted chicken products.
The company urged consumers with questions to call 800-338-8051 and visit the firm's website: www.fosterfarms.com/notice/10072013/
CDC and Foster Farms officials say that the chicken is safe to eat if it's cooked properly, but food safety experts say consumers should think carefully.
"As a general rule, if you're really concerned about the safety of food items, throw it away," Hedberg said. "These bugs are not mystical organisms. They can be killed by cooking. If you're worried, get rid of it and don't buy product from this company anymore."
JoNel Aleccia is a senior health reporter with NBC News. Reach her on Twitter at @JoNel_Aleccia or send her an email.