At the beginning of 2013, seven particularly potent strains of Salmonella began to spread across the country. By July of the following year, the outbreak had infected 634 people in 29 states and Puerto Rico, hospitalizing nearly 40 percent of them. A full 15 percent of its victims developed potentially life-threatening blood infections. And because doctors often under-diagnose such illnesses, estimates indicate that Salmonella Heidelberg may have sickened as many as 18,000 people over the course of 16 months.
Americans certainly aren’t strangers to the perils of contaminated food. Every year, 48 million fall ill from exposure to food-borne pathogens like Salmonella, E. coli, and norovirus. But these strains of Salmonella Heidelberg were different—scientists found that more than half of their samples were resistant to at least one common antibiotic.
Meat, drugs, and superbugs
In July 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially linked the outbreak to California-based Foster Farms, the top chicken producer in the West and the sixth largest in the United States.
Like many in the industry, Foster Farms treats its birds with antibiotics—and that’s a big problem. About 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States aren’t for human use but instead are fed to livestock and poultry at low doses in order to prevent illness and speed growth. The unnecessary use of these important drugs can give rise to superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria—like Salmonella Heidelberg, for example—posing a severe threat to public health.
In April 2015, the World Health Organization called superbugs "the single-greatest challenge in infectious diseases today." At least two million people in the United States develop drug-resistant infections every year, and about 23,000 die as a result. While agricultural practices aren't solely responsible for those illnesses, the CDC has found a clear connection between bacterial resistance and the extensive use of antibiotics in livestock, and the agency recommended significant reductions.
Yet as NRDC scientists uncovered, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to allow unsafe antibiotics in animal feed despite its own internal review that raised red flags. And Foster Farms, whose chicken has been linked to Salmonella outbreaks three times in the last ten years (not to mention a host of unsanitary conditions), failed to assure the public that it intends to address its drug problem.
So NRDC stepped in.
The first step toward coming clean
Together with 31 health, environmental, animal-welfare, and consumer organizations, NRDC publicly and directly appealed to Foster Farms regarding its antibiotics practices in January 2014. In a joint letter, the groups requested that the company disclose its use of antibiotics and pledge to avoid routine administration of these drugs in raising its chickens. “Foster Farms can help regain its credibility by telling the public how its birds are raised and the specific steps the company is taking to prevent the spread of drug resistant bacteria,” the letter said.
The response was less than forthcoming, even reluctance to admit any wrongdoing in the Salmonella Heidleberg outbreak. "The company publicly denied its chicken was to blame for making people sick," Reuters reported. Foster Farms claimed that proper cooking should have killed any trace of Salmonella.
At the end of November 2014, with Foster Farms still unresponsive to the request for more transparency in its practices, NRDC went public. In addition to an expansive digital campaign urging social media users to call attention to the company using the hashtag #FosterHarms, we placed a roadside billboard near its Livingston, California, headquarters asking one simple question: "Foster Farms, is your antibiotic use safe for your littlest customers?" An accompanying photograph of a wide-eyed girl drove the message home.
Foster Farms denounced the public-education campaign as "outrageous." But as Jonathan Kaplan, director of NRDC's Food and Agriculture program, told the Modesto Bee, “I think Foster Farms would like to ignore us and hope this issue goes away. By putting a billboard up, we want them to know we are here to stay, and we’re serious about the issue.”
While Foster Farms was failing to step up to the plate, other large poultry companies made significant changes in antibiotic use. Perdue, for example—the nation’s third-largest chicken producer—reported in September 2014 that it is now raising 95 percent of its birds without antibiotics. And Tyson, the largest producer of meat and poultry in the country, announced in April 2015 that it would eliminate the use of human antibiotics by September 2017. Even McDonald's announced it is working on ditching the drugs.
Finally, in June 2015, Foster Farms publicly announced that it would get serious about reducing antibiotics. The company reported a triple-fold increase in its antibiotic-free birds from the previous year, said it has already completely stopped using one drug called gentamicin, and pledged a commitment to third-party verification of its practices. It also announced plans to eliminate use of unnecessary antibiotics altogether but failed to set a timeline for doing so. While this is great news and we applaud Foster Farms' efforts, NRDC will keep up the pressure until it commits to an end date—and specific milestones to measure progress—because our health is too important to risk.