Feds recall furloughed workers to deal with salmonella outbreak

Concerns about a salmonella outbreak at a California chicken production plant could cause it to shut down. The incident raises questions about how federal agencies handle salmonella outbreaks.

David Goldman/AP
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stands behind a street sign marking the agency's entrance in Atlanta. The CDC has recalled some of its furloughed staff to deal with a salmonella outbreak.

The United States Department of Agriculture is threatening to close three California poultry factories if they do not meet health and safety standards by Thursday, according to a letter from the USDA.

The Fresno, Calif.-based Foster Farms processing plants were tied to a series of 278 salmonella infections across 17 states, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The company was cited 12 times between Jan. 1 and Sept. 27, 2013, for having fecal material on poultry carcasses, according to a CDC report. Despite the government shutdown, which furloughed 68 percent of CDC workers, 30 of the centers' employees were called back to work on Wednesday to help with the investigation.

On the company website, Foster Farms wrote that it does not plan to issue a recall on its poultry products. The spread of salmonella, the company writes, can be eliminated by properly handling chicken. 

Unlike E.coli, salmonella outbreaks do not automatically trigger a recall because cooking poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit will kill salmonella.  

Groups such as Consumer Reports have been pushing the Agricultural Department to change the way salmonella outbreaks are handled so that the government can force recalls. The only recourse currently available to the government is to remove meat inspectors from a plant that does not meet production standards. But while this prevents more meat from being processed in a contaminated factory, it still leaves possibly infected products on the shelves.

“We think the USDA should require this [Foster Farms] meat to be recalled,” said Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest to the Los Angeles Times.

The outbreak was first identified in March 2013, triggering a government investigation. This particular outbreak has proven resistant to several different types of antibiotics in some cases, according to the CDC.

Strains of salmonella that are resistant to antibiotics have been cropping up with greater frequency in the past few years, a phenomena that some scientists say is caused by poultry farmers using antibiotics in meat farming.

“It’s not an accident that this particular strain is resistant,” notes Marc Siegel, a professor at New York University’s Langone Medical Center in New York City. “I suspect it’s resistant because of the overuse of antibiotics among farm animals.”

Others say farmers are not likely overusing antibiotics because the drugs are expensive. The greater problem is that it is tough for farmers to stop salmonella from spreading.

“If the poultry industry knew how to completely eliminate salmonella, it would do it,” John Glisson, director of research for the US Poultry & Egg Association, told The New York Times.

For information about how to properly handle chicken, see the USDA’s website.

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