Super Sick: Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria on Foster Farms' Chicken

Last week, a processing plant owned by poultry giant Foster Farms was closed after food inspectors found cockroaches crawling in and around production equipment. This closure, due to “egregious insanitary conditions,” came on the heels of a CDC report linking Foster Farms’ chicken to a Salmonella outbreak which sickened more than 400 people last fall. Many were infected with bacteria resistant to one or more commonly prescribed antibiotics. This was the second Salmonella outbreak linked to Foster Farms in the past two years, and the third in the last 10.

A simple chicken dinner shouldn’t make people sick. Foster Farms says it has addressed the cockroach issue and is taking steps to reduce contamination rates, like more inspections and more frequent cleaning of equipment. That might stop cockroaches, but it probably won’t stop the spread of superbugs like antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg, which sickened unsuspecting consumers last fall, and which the CDC found on four out of five Foster Farms chicken samples tested in California.

While we don’t know the details of antibiotic use at Foster Farms, we do know that curbing the rise of antibiotic resistance, and helping ensure that life-saving antibiotics will work when we need them, means we need to stop antibiotic abuse on industrial livestock farms.

Many industrial producers of chicken (and pork and beef) feed their animals with antibiotics day after day, even when the animals aren’t sick. The overuse of antibiotics, both in treating people and raising food animals, makes these medicines less effective when we need them most: when our kids get strep throat, or when a parent gets pneumonia. When antibiotics fail, doctors must reach for more potent, and possibly toxic, drugs to treat infections.

The medical community has been warning of the dangers of antibiotic abuse in livestock for years, but the FDA has failed to take a strong stand against the practice. The amount of antibiotics sold to the livestock industry has been increasing steadily over the last decade. Today, about 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in America today are intended for use in livestock animals. It’s a $13 billion business, backed by heavyweight lobbying from the pharmaceutical and livestock industries.

We don’t add antibiotics to children’s breakfast cereal day after day to prevent them from getting sick. Poultry operators shouldn’t be doing that either.

Foster Farms hasn’t disclosed any information about antibiotics use or its other production practices, but CEO Ron Foster, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, reportedly said that without antibiotics, his birds would get sick or die. However, there are other ways to raise birds. Many poultry producers don’t use antibiotics and instead rely on healthy living conditions and better management practices, including improved sanitation, reduced crowding, probiotics, and better genetics.

NRDC and other groups are asking Foster Farms to disclose details of its antibiotics use, commit to using antibiotics responsibly and to use better management practices to keep its animals healthy. Antibiotic resistance is a growing crisis, and the livestock industry needs to be part of the solution.

Consumers also have a right to know if industrial farming practices are putting their health at risk. Sign NRDC’s petition against industrial farm secrecy and demand to know what’s in your food.