DENVER - The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a public health alert for raw chicken packaged at three Foster Farms plants in California -- chicken linked to 278 illnesses in the last six months.
Foster Farms is not issuing a recall, saying that as long as the chicken is cooked to 165 degrees, the salmonella bacteria will be killed. The company claims the illnesses in 18 states are the result of undercooked or improperly handled chicken.
USDA investigators haven't traced the illnesses to a specific product or production period. But raw products from the facilities in question bear one of three numbers inside a USDA mark of inspection or elsewhere. The numbers are P6137, P6137A or P7632.
"The investigations indicate that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken and other brand chicken produced at Foster Farms plants are the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections. Illnesses were linked to Foster Farms brand chicken through epidemiologic, laboratory and traceback investigations conducted by local, state, and federal officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is partnering with state health departments to monitor the outbreak while FSIS continues its investigation," the USDA said in its alert.
The products were mainly distributed to retail outlets in California, Oregon and Washington state.
Most of the illnesses have been reported in California, according to the USDA alert. However, four illnesses have been reported in Colorado, according to a CDC map tracking the multi-state outbreak of multidrug-resistant salmonella.
Illnesses have also been reported in Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.
There is no recall but health officials emphasize that chicken should be cooked to 165 degrees and people need to thoroughly wash their hands after handling raw meat.
Anyone who believes they're infected and have symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal cramps and a fever within 8 to 72 hours should contact doctors immediately. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days.
Salmonella infections can be life-threatening, especially to those with weak immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy.
Foster Farms said it is working with the USDA and CDC to address any issues.
There is some concern because the CDC furloughed most of the staff that analyze food-borne pathogens.
All but two of the 80 staffers were furloughed.
It's not clear if that is affecting the response to the salmonella outbreak.
On Tuesday, the CDC recalled 30 staffers, including 10 who work for the agency’s PulseNet team, which monitors the electronic fingerprint of dangerous food-borne bugs, according to NBC News.
NBC also said about 42 percent of salmonella patients reporting complete information have been hospitalized, about double the proportion typically expected from a salmonella outbreak, said Barbara Reynolds, a CDC spokeswoman. Of 183 complete cases, 76 patients have been hospitalized. Among those, many infections appear to be resistant to the most common antibiotics used to them, she added.
Consumers can call Foster Farm's hotline at 800-338-8051 or visit their website -- http://www.fosterfarms.com/