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.
The Agriculture Department can halt production by withdrawing meat inspectors. In its letter to Foster Farms, USDA said the evidence suggests "the sanitary conditions in the establishment under which the product is produced could pose a serious ongoing threat to public health."
Chicken pinpointed as cause of salmonella outbreak
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Health officials urged consumers to cook chicken thoroughly and take other precautions after an 18-state salmonella outbreak that has made hundreds sick in recent months.
A public health alert was issued for raw chicken packaged at three Foster Farms facilities in California as some 278 people have fallen ill since strains of Salmonella Heidelberg were first detected in March, the United States Department of Agriculture said in a statement Monday.
The strains were associated with chicken distributed to retail outlets in California, Oregon and Washington state, the USDA said. The illnesses have been predominantly in California but the salmonella has reached people from 18 states, the statement said.
The outbreak appears to have begun in March and the USDA was notified of the illnesses in July, said Dan Engeljohn of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Investigators had a difficult time pinpointing the source of the illnesses, Englejohn said.
A spokesman for Foster Farms said no recall was in effect and that the infections were caused by eating chicken that was undercooked or improperly handled. The three facilities that packaged the chicken were all in California's Central Valley - one in Livingston and two in Fresno.
The USDA has not directly linked the outbreak of illnesses to a specific product or production period.
The USDA mark on suspect packages would read: P6137, P6137A and P7632.
State health officials were not planning a recall, but said it is essential that chicken be cooked to 165 degrees.
"This is the important public health issue," Anita Gore, spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health. "Chicken can carry bacteria, and chicken needs to be fully cooked."
Gore also said people need to thoroughly wash their hands after handling raw meat, and anyone who believes they were infected and is showing symptoms like diarrhea and abdominal cramps should contact doctors immediately.
Salmonella is a pathogen that contaminates meat during slaughter and processing, and is especially common in undercooked chicken.
The Centers for Disease Control, which monitors the microbes that signal multi-state outbreaks of food poisoning, was working with a barebones staff because of the federal government shutdown, with all but two of the 80 staffers that normally analyze foodborne pathogens furloughed. It was not immediately clear whether the shortage affected the response to the salmonella outbreak.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.