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Exclusive interview: USDA’s Engeljohn on Foster Farms and salmonella (Updated)

By Rita Jane Gabbett on 10/11/2013

As USDA zeros in on three Foster Farms chicken processing plants relative to a Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak that has sickened at least 278 in at least 17 states, food safety advocates are demanding to know why there has been no product recall.

On Monday USDA threatened to close the plants, but on Thursday night the agency said it would allow the plants to keep operating under increased scrutiny.   

Meatingplace interviewed USDA’s Assistant Administrator for FSIS Field Operations Daniel Engeljohn about the agency's current state of inquiry into Foster Farms and the complicated regulatory environment that applies to controlling salmonella in poultry and meat processing plants.    

Meatingplace: Why hasn’t USDA asked Foster Farms to voluntarily recall raw poultry products when they have been associated with such a widespread Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak?

ENGELJOHN: Our decision was that we did not believe the product being produced in the marketplace was adulterated, which would be what we would have to conclude to have it removed from the marketplace.

Meatingplace: How could it be associated with the Salmonella Heidelberg illness outbreak if the product in the marketplace was not adulterated?

ENGELJOHN: We had data suggesting Foster Farms was producing product associated with the illnesses but we were not able to associate that with any particular time in which the product was produced or day of production. From the perspective of what was happening in the facility, we did not feel that we had the type of support we needed to make that determination.

We had reason to believe there was process control that could be improved in the facilities and as a consequence of them being implicated because consumers that got sick identified they had purchased Foster Farms poultry among other brands. Outbreak investigations are complicated, but information would suggest Foster Farms was involved, so we focused on them because it was the best information we had.

Meatingplace: Are there any other processors you are focusing on specifically in relation to this Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak?

ENGELJOHN: There have been others identified and we will continue to assess the data, but right now we are focused on Foster Farms.

Meatingplace: Is there additional work you are doing now that could result in you identifying specific product runs on specific dates at Foster Farms?

ENGELJOHN: Based on our actions on Monday when we identified these three facilities that Foster Farms needed to modify their operations to be more consistent in preventing contamination on their products, at this point, we feel we have enough information to force the facilities to improve their processes. If more data were to become available — and there are still samples being analyzed from people who have gotten ill — that may shed more new light. But right now, this is where we are.

Meatingplace: Can you walk me through the difference between E. coli O157:H7 and the six other E. coli strains that are considered adulterants in raw ground beef and salmonella, which is not considered an adulterant in raw poultry products?

ENGELJOHN: E. coli O157:H7 and six other E. coli strains are considered adulterants in some beef products (including ground beef), but not all beef products. The rationale at the time was that it was an emerging new pathogen that was more virulent than most other pathogens we knew about then. We also knew consumer preference was preparation of ground beef products in a manner that would not eliminate the pathogen.

For salmonella, we did issue a new policy in December 2012 in which we identified new considerations for addressing nontraditional contaminants as adulterants in not-ready-to-eat (raw) products. So that could be salmonella or E. coli. That was just after we had declared salmonella a contaminant in ground turkey products produced by Cargill.

(Editor’s note: In August 2011 Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey on possible salmonella contamination concerns amidst a Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak of more than 100 illnesses across more than 30 states.)

The circumstances for salmonella at this time are that under normal consumer preparation and handling practices it can be destroyed through proper cooking. In the case of the Cargill outbreak, however, there was evidence to suggest there was a production process failure that caused a particular lot to be adulterated, so we declared salmonella as an adulterant in that plant in those particular products. That same salmonella strain in another plant would not be considered an adulterant. So it is a case-by-case determination.

We tried to apply that same process (at Foster Farms), but we did not have all the information we needed, but we are now forcing the establishment to put into place more consistent and effective process controls.

Meatingplace: Does USDA have the legal authority to force Foster Farms to recall products?

ENGELJOHN: We have the legal authority to ask for a voluntary recall. If we believe product to be adulterated and in commerce and the facility does not voluntarily recall, then we must seize and detain it and that requires us to prove that the product is adulterated. We have the ability to remove adulterated product from the marketplace.

Meatingplace: In terms of the USDA standard that less than 7.5 percent of raw chicken carcasses in a plant should test positive for salmonella, how is that enforceable?

ENGELJOHN: After the Supreme Beef case we published our enforcement strategy for how we would address salmonella in light of the Supreme Beef decision.

(Editor’s note: In 2001 USDA tried to shut down a Supreme Beef plant for failing to meet salmonella performance standards. Supreme Beef sued and won. The court ruled USDA overstepped its authority because normal cooking practices kill salmonella in meat.)

With that, we said we wouldn’t just take the salmonella performance as the sole determinant of removing inspection; we would take into account a broader range of inspection findings.

Meatingplace: USDA cannot shut a plant down for not meeting the 7.5 percent standard

ENGELJOHN: We would not shut a plant down just because they didn’t meet (the standard), but if there was other evidence of insanitary conditions similar to what is happening now at Foster Farms. Although there isn’t a performance standard yet for raw chicken parts (the standard applies only to whole chicken carcasses), based on their salmonella rate on parts we took an enforcement action to tell them that if they didn’t offer effective corrective action within 72 hours we would suspend inspection.

(Editor's note: USDA inspectors found salmonella rates of over 24 percent on various chicken product samples taken at three Foster Farms plants.)

Meatingplace: Is there anything else you want our readers to understand about this situation with Foster Farms?

ENGELJOHN: It is important to know the enforcement actions taken by FSIS are substantive. People want a product recall, but we determined the production process was such that it could be significantly improved, but we did not find that it was so out of control that any product produced would be adulterated ... although there is a high illness rate and a very high hospitalization rate, so there is something unusual happening and that requires there to be more study and more evaluation. But in the immediate time, we can take action to force the establishment to substantively improve their operations.

Meatingplace: This is what gets confusing. You say you did not believe there was adulterated product out there, but if people are getting sick, there must be adulterated product out there.

ENGELJOHN: That is true. People are getting sick from this product and it appears to be associated with Foster Farms. But when we look at the product and the process, we are trying to identify which product and which process is out of control and that we were not able to obtain definitive information about. That may change as we go forward and new information becomes available. There may be a consumer who gets sick for which we have information such as a production code and a product label that would allow us to definitively identify a point in time during which that product would be associated with that illness, and that is what we would be using to go forward with a product recall.

(Update makes clear USDA's salmonella contamination performance standard of 7.5 percent applies only to raw whole chicken carcasses and not raw chicken parts.)

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