DENVER - Several Colorado consumers say they're confused about a public safety alert issued by the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service.
The FSIS issued the alert Monday after the number of people sickened in a recent Salmonella outbreak, believed linked to Foster Farms in California, reached 278. Nearly half have been hospitalized.
"What does a public health alert mean," asked Melissa Beaudette of Parker. “What do I need to do?"
Beaudette says she purchased several packages of Foster Farms chicken recently from her neighborhood King Soopers. She says the alert raises questions about the safety of the food.
The alert states that FSIS is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product or production period, but says the raw products from the facilities in question bear one of following three code numbers inside the USDA mark of inspection or elsewhere on the package:
The alert doesn’t state that the products should be returned to the store or thrown away.
It simply reminds consumers to properly handle raw poultry in a manner to prevent contamination from spreading to other foods, and to follow package cooking instructions and general food safety guidelines.
ABC’s chief health and medical editor, Dr. Richard Besser, said, “This is one of those outbreaks they’re worried about. The reason is the number of people hospitalized by the Salmonella is higher than they expect… and that many of the strains are antibiotic resistant.”
Adding to the confusion over the alert, the state health department says "it's not a story" in Colorado.
Four of those sickened with Salmonella are in Colorado.
But the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says three of those four say they didn't eat chicken.
That raises questions about whether their illnesses are the result of cross contamination or another source.
“We don’t have a specific health message,” said CDPH&E spokesman Mark Salley, “other than chicken always contains harmful bacteria and you should cook it thoroughly.”
In a recorded statement to consumers, Foster Farms said, “Foster Farms products are safe and wholesome to consume if properly handled and fully cooked.”
The company said it is working with the FSIS and the CDC to reduce the incidence of Salmonella Heidelberg on raw chicken produced at three company plants in California.
In a press release, the company said it has instituted a number of additional food safety practices, processes and technology throughout company facilities that have already proven effective in controlling Salmonella in its Pacific Northwest operations, but did not elaborate on what those practices or processes are.
The FSIS news release states that “The investigation is ongoing and FSIS is prepared to take additional actions or expand the investigation based on new evidence.”
Foster Farms said, “No recall is in effect.” But several Colorado consumers question whether there should be.
“I’d say yes, as a consumer,” said Highlands Ranch resident Michael Lowell.
Lowell said he returned some Foster Farms chicken with one of the suspected code numbers to King Soopers, after learning about the alert.
“They didn’t even ask for a receipt,” he said.
--CDC brings furloughed employees back--
The Centers for Disease control called several employees, who had been furloughed by the government shutdown, back to work to try to trace the exact source of contamination.
In a news release, the CDC said investigators are using DNA “fingerprints” of Salmonella bacteria obtained through diagnostic testing… to identify cases of illness that may be part of this outbreak.
Most of the illnesses (77%) have been reported in California, but there are cases in 17 other states.
Illness onset dates range from March 1 to Sept. 24, 2013. Ill persons range in age from 1 year to 93 years. 51% are male and 42% have been hospitalized.
No deaths have been reported, but health officials warn consumers that Salmonella infection can be potentially fatal, particularly in patients with compromised immune systems, infants and older patients.
Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within 8 to 72 hours of consuming contaminated products.
Foster Farms reminds consumers to follow safe food handling guidelines.
The product should be kept refrigerated or frozen. It should be thawed in the refrigerator or microwave. Raw meat and poultry should be kept separate from other foods. Working surfaces, including counters, cutting boards and utensils should be washed after use. So should the preparer’s hands.
All fresh poultry products should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit as measured by a meat thermometer.