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Foster Farms recalls some chicken, 16 months into salmonella outbreak

By P.J. Huffstutter

(Reuters) - California-based poultry giant Foster Farms will recall some of the contaminated chicken linked to a massive salmonella outbreak that has stretched on for 16 months and sickened hundreds of consumers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Foster Farms announced late Thursday.

The chicken products being recalled were produced by Foster Farms at its three plants in central California, all of which public health investigators have connected to the outbreak that started in March of 2013. The outbreak has roiled the public and brought regulatory pressure on the poultry producer.

The salmonella strains connected to the outbreak have been identified in nearly 600 cases in 27 states and Puerto Rico.

Foster Farms, in issuing the first recall since the outbreak started, said it was doing so "in the fullest interest of food safety".

"This recall is prompted by a single illness associated with specific fresh chicken product, but in the fullest interest of food safety, Foster Farms has broadened the recall to encompass all products packaged at that time. Foster Farms regrets any illness associated with its products," the statement said.

According to Foster Farms, the products under recall were distributed in the following states: California, Hawaii, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Oregon and Alaska.

According to a statement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foster Farms has agreed to recall chicken products that it produced on March 8, 10 and 11 this year at its plant in Livingston, Calif. and two facilities in Fresno, California.

In the statement, the USDA said this was the first time in the 16-month investigation that agency officials have been able to establish a clear and definitive connection between a Foster Farms chicken, the lots and particular plant where it was processed and a case of illness.

Until now, Foster Farms executives have steadily fought against federal and state regulatory pressure to issue a recall.

The company has publicly denied its chicken was to blame for making people sick. Proper cooking should have killed any salmonella on its meat, the company has said.

Litigation against the company is starting to grow. Mounting, too, is political pressure to change USDA's recall authority in certain salmonella food-safety cases.

"There have been instances where responsible companies have recalled their products, even where they were not linked to a particular illness. Those recalls were voluntary, out of a concern to get the product off the market and help prevent people from becoming sick," said William Marler, a food safety attorney who is representing a California man allegedly sickened by the salmonella outbreak.

"This is the first time Foster Farms has done a recall of its chicken products over salmonella – ever."

A California-based agricultural giant, Foster Farms produces about one out of every 10 chickens eaten by Americans and controls about 95 percent of all the chicken raised and slaughtered in the Golden State, according to data compiled by poultry industry lobbyists.

To date, the pathogen has been linked to making nearly 600 people sick, including children, and hospitalized 40 percent of those who have fallen ill – about double the typical rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though the outbreak has slowed in recent months, new cases of Salmonella Heidelberg illnesses were still being reported through May of this year, according to epidemiologists at California's state health department and the CDC.

(Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; editing by David Greising and Himani Sarkar)

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