WASHINGTON (AP) - The Agriculture Department is threatening to shut down three California poultry processing facilities linked to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 278 people across the country.
USDA said Wednesday that Foster Farms, owner of the three facilities, has until tomorrow to tell the department how it will fix the problem. The company was notified Monday.
Sampling by USDA in September showed that raw chicken processed by those facilities included strains of salmonella that were linked to the outbreak. But the company has not recalled any of its products.
In a letter to Foster Farms, USDA said those samples coupled with illnesses suggest that the sanitary conditions at the facility "could pose a serious ongoing threat to public health.''
The first illnesses in the outbreak were reported in March and the outbreak has had a high rate of hospitalizations. The CDC said 42 percent of victims were hospitalized, about double the normal rate, and it is resistant to many antibiotics, making it a more severe outbreak.
The Agriculture Department can halt production by withdrawing meat inspectors. In the letter, Yudhbir Sharma of USDA's Alameda, Calif. district office said Foster Farms has failed to demonstrate that it has adequate controls in place to address the salmonella issue. He said that in one of the facilities, 25 percent of the samples taken were positive for salmonella.
The letter said that prior to the outbreak, USDA inspectors had documented "fecal material on carcasses'' along with "poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary nonfood contact surfaces and direct product contamination.''
In a statement Monday, Foster Farms President Ron Foster said the company regretted any illnesses and was taking steps on its own to ensure food safety. He said the company is working with USDA.
According to CDC, the most recent illness began two weeks ago and the outbreak is ongoing. The majority of illnesses have been in California but people in 17 states have been infected, from Texas to Michigan to North Carolina.
Salmonella is a pathogen that contaminates meat during slaughter and processing, and is especially common in raw chicken. The infections can be avoided by proper handling and cooking of raw poultry.
The pathogen can be life-threatening to those with weakened immune systems and causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within a few days of eating a contaminated product.
Consumer advocates have for several years petitioned the department to change the way salmonella outbreaks in meat are handled. Because salmonella is so prevalent in poultry and is killed if consumers handle and cook it properly, the government has not declared it to be a so-called "adulterant,'' or illegal, in meat, as is E. coli. Outbreaks of salmonella in poultry can take longer to discover and recalls don't happen as quickly.
The federal shutdown has also been hampering the government response to food safety issues. While USDA's meat inspectors are on the job, the CDC had furloughed many of those who work to investigate outbreaks. But the agency recalled many of those workers Tuesday to work on the salmonella outbreak.