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Contaminated Foster Farms Chicken Infects 278 People

Flickr Photo/Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH

The US Department of Agriculture reported on Tuesday that 278 people have been infected with salmonella following an outbreak likely originating from three Foster Farms plants in California.

Most of those people are from California, according to a statement, although the outbreak has reached 18 states. Fifteen are from Washington state.

This is the second time this year that Foster Farms has been the source of a salmonella outbreak: In July, the CDC reported that 33 people, most from Washington and Oregon, were hospitalized after eating contaminated chicken. One hundred others became ill.

Foster Farms, which has plants in the Northwest, California, Alabama, Colorado and Arkansas, said in a statement that they won’t recall the chicken.

“We deeply regret any foodborne illness that may be associated with any of our products,” Foster Farms President Ron Foster said in a statement. The statement emphasized that consumers should properly cook chicken to 165 degrees to kill the salmonella bacteria.

Robert O’Connor, Foster Farms’ food safety chief and head veterinarian, added that salmonella “can be fully eradicated if raw product is properly handled and fully cooked.”

Complicating matters in the outbreak announced Tuesday was the partial government shutdown. Officials at the Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control could not answer reporter phone calls, nor was anyone answering the phone at the food safety consumer hotline.

Spokesman Donn Moyer of the Washington State Department of Health said the government shutdown hasn't affected the state's work.

“The illnesses reported so far all occurred before the shutdown; even so, we do our own disease investigations and then report to CDC,” Moyer said by email. “In a long-term shutdown there could be some impact, more likely.”

Reporting foodborne illnesses typically goes through federal channels, Moyer said.

A doctor might send a sick patient for testing and then report the results to the state health department. The health department would notify the CDC, which would track the outbreak.

“Sometimes, there’s no common exposure found by us and we’re notified by federal partners that there’s a cluster or an outbreak potentially linked to a common source,” Moyer said. “Then we compare to that information.”