Update: Friday, Oct. 11, 2013:
At 9:00 pm Thursday night, the USDA told us that Foster Farms had submitted and implemented immediate changes to their slaughter and processing systems to allow for continued operation.
"FSIS inspectors will verify that these changes are being implemented in a continuous and ongoing basis," Aaron Lavallee of USDA's FSIS told us. Additionally, to ensure that the Salmonella Heidelberg has been controlled, the agency says it will continue intensified sampling at Foster Farms facilities for at least the next 90 days.
Original post follows ....
The company at the center of a large-scale salmonella outbreak, Foster Farms, faces a big deadline Thursday.
The California-based poultry producer must deliver plans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service to fix the problems that USDA inspectors have uncovered at three of its four production facilities — namely, evidence of Salmonella Heidelberg.
As we've reported, the outbreak has sickened 278 people in multiple states, and 42 percent of those who got sick have been hospitalized. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some of the strains of Salmonella Heidelberg making people sick in this outbreak are resistant to several commonly used antibiotics.
Earlier this week, the USDA delivered a Notice of Intended Enforcement to Foster Farms. The letter explained that inspections would be suspended at Foster Farms' operations — in effect, shutting the plants down — if the company doesn't produce plans to correct problems at each of the three plants by the end of the day Thursday.
As of noon Eastern time, FSIS has received one of the company's proposed action plans.
And now, FSIS officials "will start the evaluation process to ensure that [Foster Farms is] taking the necessary steps to prevent the persistent recurrence of Salmonella in their facilities," Aaron Lavallee of the USDA's FSIS told The Salt in an email.
Foster Farms released a statement on its website saying that as soon as the company was alerted to concerns over salmonella, "we brought in national food safety experts to assess our processes and have reinforced our processes with new technologies proven to be effective." The note came from Ron Foster, president of Foster Farms, who pledged to resolve the issues.
Food safety expert Caroline Smith DeWaal with the Center for Science in the Public Interest says the stakes are high here.
"Antibiotic-resistant Salmonella is simply too hot to handle in [consumers'] kitchens," Smith DeWaal told me in an email. "The USDA should direct Foster Farms to recall all potentially contaminated chicken from the market."
On Capitol Hill, representatives Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., are calling on Congress to take action on what they describe as a problem of overuse of antibiotics in agriculture.
A statement released by Slaughter says antibiotics are routinely given to healthy animals, often to promote growth: "As a result, bacteria become resistant to these overused antibiotics."