Disclosed USDA Documents Show "Fecal Failures" and other recent violations at Foster Farms' chicken plants

Today NRDC posted hundreds of noncompliance reports written by USDA food safety inspectors at Foster Farms plants around the country between September 2013 and March of this year.  Most of the violations found were incredibly unsavory and include more than 200 from two California plants linked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to an antibiotic resistant Salmonella outbreak.   Although the outbreak now appears to be over, the pattern of violations at Foster Farms plants doesn’t leave us feeling warm and fuzzy about the company’s commitment to protecting public health.  And we still have not received any response to our questions about antibiotic use at Foster Farms.

There have been 634 reported cases of Salmonella-related illness associated with Foster Farms and many thousands more may have suffered without being officially counted.  Many of the Salmonella samples taken by CDC from patients and Foster Farms chicken tested resistant to one or more medically important antibiotics.  Amazingly, the outbreak continued for over 15 months before CDC declared it over on July 31 of this year.  At points along the way, Foster Farms responded with promises that it was improving its processes and, at the urging of USDA, finally recalled a few products for the first time in July.  Yet while the company repeatedly assured us that it was committed to the “highest level” of food safety, USDA inspection reports show that plant violations were routine.

Here at NRDC we’re particularly concerned about antibiotic use at Foster Farms.  When poultry and livestock producers use antibiotics routinely, some bacteria become resistant to the drugs, contributing to the larger problem of antibiotic resistance.  Although Foster Farms’ website says the company does not use antibiotics for growth promotion, other statements by company officials suggest that the company relies on antibiotics to keep its flocks alive. CEO Ron Foster reportedly told the San Francisco Chronicle that without antibiotics, his birds would likely get sick and even die. 

The USDA inspection reports obtained by NRDC under a Freedom of Information Act request don’t exactly inspire confidence that this company is making health and safety a real priority.  They include 300 pages of reports-- known as noncompliance records (NR’s) --by USDA food safety inspectors at Foster Farms facilities.  These inspectors file NR’s when they determine that an establishment is not in compliance with regulatory requirements and needs to take action.  Unfortunately, the documents provided to NRDC were heavily redacted so many of the specific details about Foster Farms’ sanitation practices remain secret.  But what we can read of the inspectors’ accounts is alarming—not only unappetizing, but also worrisome from a health perspective.   

The inspection reports include descriptions of mold growth, cockroaches, an instance of pooling caused by a skin-clogged floor drain, fecal matter and “Unidentified Foreign Material” (which has its own acronym, UFM) on chicken carcasses, failure to implement required tests and sampling, metal pieces found in carcasses, and many more.   The good news is that these reports indicate that immediate corrective action is generally required whenever a violation is found and contaminated products must be re-washed or discarded.  But, as Mother Jones reported last year, only a tiny fraction of the total number of birds are typically inspected in plants, leaving us wondering about contaminated carcasses that may go unnoticed.

We would have expected that improved sanitation would be a top priority at Foster Farms at the height of the Salmonella outbreak, yet its slaughter and processing plant in Livingston, CA was cited 154 times in the weeks and months after October 7, 2013, when USDA issued a Public Health Alert about Foster Farms chicken.  We tally more than one violation every two days at the plant, on average, between October 2013 and March of this year.  Twenty-two of these violations resulted from fecal matter contamination.  Amazingly, this is the same plant-- #6137-- that was closed temporarily in January 2014 after USDA discovered “an infestation of live cockroaches” and “egregious insanitary conditions.”   At the time, Foster Farms responded with a statement saying this was an “isolated incident” and pledged a “zero tolerance” policy in tackling food safety violations.  Yet, over the next two months, inspectors cited the plant at least 48 more times.

When CDC announced in May of this year that the Foster Farms-linked outbreak of Salmonella was still on-going, the company issued a statement assuring us its commitment to “leadership in food safety.”  Unfortunately, the USDA inspection reports seem to tell a different story.

Meanwhile, NRDC will continue to press for meaningful oversight of livestock antibiotics by the Food and Drug Administration.  This week we petitioned the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its July decision, split 2-to-1, that allows FDA to continue to refuse to withdraw approvals of livestock antibiotics despite the agency’s finding that these uses threaten the effectiveness of essential human medicines.  The appeals court overturned two district court rulings in cases brought by the NRDC and other groups, which directed the FDA to stop the routine use of certain antibiotics in healthy animals unless drug manufacturers proved the safety of such use.