Lynne Terry of the Portland Oregonian broke the story tonight that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Services suspended poultry processing at one of the biggest Foster Farms plants in California over “egregious” unsanitary conditions.

The agency said in a suspension notice that the company’s plant in Livingston, California is infested with live cockroaches, posing a public health threat.

The suspension comes after USDA/FSIS investigations of three Foster Farms plants in central California, including the one in Livingston, over two nationwide Salmonella outbreaks reported in July and December 2013 that sickened more than 550 people.

The question I have is why does USDA/FSIS have the authority to shutter a plant for cockroaches but not for poisoning 550 with Salmonella?

As I said to USA Today – tonight:

Seattle food safety lawyer Bill Marler found it odd that USDA “has the power to shut a plant down when they found cockroaches but doesn’t have the power to shut them down when they poison hundreds of people with antibiotic-resistant salmonella.”

In two outbreak in 2013 at least 550 sickened and it could be 38.5 times that.*

In the second Foster Farms outbreak of 2013, the CDC reports a total of 416 individuals infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg have been reported from 23 states and Puerto Rico. Most of the ill persons (74%) have been reported from California. The number of ill persons identified in each state is as follows: Alaska (1), Arkansas (1), Arizona (18), California (310), Colorado (9), Connecticut (1), Delaware (1), Florida (4), Idaho (4), Illinois (1), Kentucky (1), Louisiana (1), Michigan (3), Missouri (5), North Carolina (1), Nevada (10), New Mexico (2), Oregon (10), Puerto Rico (1), Texas (10), Utah (2), Virginia (3), Washington (16), and Wisconsin (1).

Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback investigations conducted by local, state, and federal officials indicate that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken is the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections.

An earlier outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg linked to Foster Farms was first announced February 14, 2013.  That outbreak sickened 134.  The current outbreak was first announced October 8, 2013 when the number of ill was only 278.  It is now 418.  At that time FSIS threatened Foster Farms with removing inspectors because sanitary conditions at its three facilities were so poor that they posed a “serious ongoing threat to public health.”  FSIS officials had found a “high frequency of Salmonella Heidelberg positives and specifically a high frequency of one or more outbreak strains” in the three plants. The letters also cited “fecal material on carcasses” and “findings of poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary non food contact surfaces and direct product contamination” at the plants.  See Notices of Intended Enforcement: ONETWO and THREE that FSIS sent to Foster Farms.

Neither Foster Farms nor FSIS have recalled any chicken despite illnesses beginning in February and continuing through the end of November.

See also Consumer Report’s chicken testing and the Pew Charitable Trusts, FSIS’s Weakness in Salmonella Regulation.

If you want a little insight into the legal history of Salmonella as a non-adulterant, read these:

FSIS’s and Foster Farms’ Reason for NOT Recalling Salmonella Chicken: “Shit Happens!”

Butz, Supreme Beef and FSIS’s Salmonella Policy – A Bit(e) of History

And, why some meat with Salmonella gets recalled and some not:

Why does the FSIS like Foster Farm’s Salmonella better than Cargill’s Salmonella?

*According to the CDC, for every one person who is a stool-culture confirmed positive victim of Salmonella in the United States, there a multiple of 38.5 who are also sick, but remain uncounted. (See, AC Voetsch, “FoodNet estimate of the burden of illness caused by nontyphoidal Salmonella infections in the United States,” Clinical Infectious Diseases 2004; 38 (Suppl 3): S127-34).

Marler Clark, The Food Safety Law Firm, is the nation’s leading law firm representing victims of Salmonella outbreaks. The Salmonella lawyers of Marler Clark have represented thousands of victims of Salmonella and other foodborne illness outbreaks and have recovered over $600 million for clients.  Marler Clark is the only law firm in the nation with a practice focused exclusively on foodborne illness litigation.  Our Salmonella lawyers have litigated Salmonella cases stemming from outbreaks traced to a variety of foods, such as cantaloupe, tomatoes, ground turkey, salami, sprouts, cereal, peanut butter, and food served in restaurants.  The law firm has brought Salmonella lawsuits against such companies as Cargill, ConAgra, Peanut Corporation of America, Sheetz, Taco Bell, Subway and Wal-Mart.