Contaminated Chicken Sickens Nearly 300 People at the Worst Possible Time

raw chickenForget what does the fox say. Who watches the hen house when there's a salmonella outbreak and we're in the middle of a government shutdown? (Heh, you see what I did there? Never mind ...) An outbreak of salmonella has sickened nearly 280 people in 18 states. The contamination comes from three Foster Farms facilities in California. About 42 percent of the affected people have been hospitalized, which is high for a salmonella outbreak. There are seven strains of salmonella involved, and some of those may be antibiotic-resistant.

Meanwhile, the government shutdown has left key food safety employees at the USDA and disease-surveillance scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention off the job.


“The number of people we know to be ill is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Caroline Smith deWaal, a food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “This outbreak shows that it's a terrible time for government public health officials to be locked out of their offices and labs, and for government Web sites to go dark." So that's kind of scary -- this outbreak could be worse than we think, just when the food scientists are out.

Yeah, Caroline. It does seem like a terrible time for food scientists to be home playing Scrabble with their kids instead of safeguarding our food supply. But then, there never seems to be a good time for this to happen.

Here's another scary thing: Unlike E. coli, antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella are not classified as "adulterants" -- which means the USDA does not have the authority to keep salmonella-contaminated foods out of the food supply. The CSPI is asking Foster Farms to recall all the potentially contaminated chicken from the market. As it is, all we have now is a USDA "food safety alert" warning us to be careful. (Whatever!)

Foster Farms has issued a statement saying, "We deeply regret any foodborne illness that may be associated with any of our products ..." which sounds like a weak response to me. And they're not recalling anything. But just in case you're worried, the USDA says suspect packages have the following establishment numbers inside the inspection marks: P6137, P6137A, or P7632.

Oh brother. Well, let's hope we get this government shutdown over with soon before there's another outbreak. Careful with your chicken, everyone! Check your packages before you cook your chicken. The rate of outbreaks is way up this year, and it's not because people are suddenly being less careful in the kitchen.

Have you ever been sickened from salmonella contamination?


Image via Iwanon/photocuisine/Corbis

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