Months after salmonella-contaminated chicken distributed by a California company sickened people, the dangerous food is still being sold around the country. This disturbing situation is the result of weak federal regulatory powers and the company’s irresponsibility.
The episode is especially dangerous because the seven strains of salmonella bacteria involved in the outbreak are resistant to antibiotics, in some cases to multiple antibiotics. Late last week, 338 people were reported as infected by the seven strains in 20 states, with most of the infections in California. No deaths have been reported, but 40 percent of the patients needed to be hospitalized.
Consumers became ill as early as March 1. But it was not until June that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was notified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of a salmonella outbreak in four states.
Investigators traced the likely source of the problem to raw chicken products from three Foster Farms facilities in California. On Oct. 7, FSIS issued a warning, telling people to handle raw poultry carefully and cook it well.
The agency also required Foster Farms to submit plans to prevent persistent salmonella contamination. The company did so and was allowed to keep operating under an enhanced inspection process.
FSIS did not ask or order the company to recall any of its products. Instead, the agency told the public to look for numbers on the chicken packaging identifying the three facilities in case they wanted to avoid Foster Farms’ products. Nor did the company recall any products, claiming they were safe if handled and cooked properly.
An FSIS spokesman said that under statutes and case law, the agency cannot compel a recall in the Foster Farms case with the current evidence. Congress should hold hearings to determine whether the Agriculture Department and its food safety service need more power to protect the public from potentially serious harm.