LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Three poultry processing plants linked to an outbreak of drug-resistant salmonella will remain open after implementing immediate changes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday.
The USDA announced Thursday it would allow Foster Farms processing plants in Fresno and Livingston to remain open after the company agreed to improve food handling safety procedures.
In a statement, the USDA said the company has cooperated with the federal agency and agreed to make changes at their plants.
"Foster Farms has submitted and implemented immediate, substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations. Inspectors will verify that these changes are being implemented in a continuous and ongoing basis," the statement read.
Chicken from the plants in question has been linked to salmonella Heidelberg, a so-called 'super bug' that has sickened 278 people and does not respond to some antibiotics.
About half the people sickened by the bug were hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In a letter to Foster Farms earlier this week, the USDA raised concerns about what inspectors found at three California plants later linked to the outbreak.
Among their findings were fecal matter on carcasses, poor sanitary practices and contamination.
"That's obviously a good first step in the fact that the plants are hopefully going to be engaging in more safe mechanisms by which to prevent contaminated food from getting into grocery stores, but the problem is that there's probably still a lot of contaminated chicken that's out there," said Dr. Soniya Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at UCLA.
On Wednesday, Ralphs and Kroger elected to remove the products from their shelves as a precaution.
A recall has not been issued for the products, and Pavillions and Vons stores defended their decision to keep the products in their stores.
"Neither the USDA nor any other governmental agency has issued a recall of this product. In addition, the California Department of Health issued a press release yesterday saying that 'with proper handling and preparation, this product is safe for consumption,'" a spokesperson for the grocery stores said.
"It's quite irresponsible that they have not issued an official recall given how many individuals have been sickened by this," Dr. Gandhi said.
Salmonella cases linked to the plants have been reported in 17 states since March, with the majority in California, according to the CDC. A total of 213 people have tested positive in California.
Los Angeles County has seen 18 cases, with nine requiring hospitalization.
The health department would not disclose any information about victims but did say the current outbreak is more dangerous because the bacteria is resistant to multiple antibiotics.
In a statement on its website, Foster Farms President and CEO Ron Foster apologized to customers.
"Food safety is -- and has always been -- at the heart of our family business. On behalf of my family I am sorry for any food-borne illness associated with Foster Farms chicken and for any concern this may have caused you," the statement reads.
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