How Safe Are Foster Farms’ Chickens?

Outbreaks of salmonella and listeria. Brutal beatings. What’s happening at a West Coast chicken processor makes me question its claim to humane.

by Rachael Dupree

How Safe Are Foster Farms' Chickens?

When farmers use the term “food safety,” it’s usually on the frontlines of battling dangerous diseases in our food, such as E. coli or salmonella. In these discussions, the preservation of human health is the ultimate goal.

However, yesterday Foster Farms, a family-run poultry operation in California and the Pacific Northwest, released news of a different type of food-safety issue they’ve been battling this month: the physical safety of their chickens.

On Sept. 20, 2014, burglars broke into the Foster Farms facility in Caruthers, Calif., beating and killing 920 chickens with golf clubs and other similar objects. The company, which claims to prioritize humane treatment of their chickens, is offering a $5,000 reward for help finding the perpetrator.

I use the word “claims” because this isn’t the first time the health and safety of Foster Farms chickens have been called into question. In fact, just earlier this week, the company recalled nearly 40,000 pounds of its packaged chicken strips, thought to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. This recall follows a string of questionable food-safety incidences in the company, including cockroach infestations in processing facilities and fecal contamination of meat, as well as failure to publicly disclose its antibiotic use.

While horror stories in commercial meat production are unfortunately far from rare, this isn’t the type of controversy you’d expect from a brand boasting the American Humane Certified label—an independent, third-party certification that aims to give consumers trust in meats that are humanely and ethically raised.

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As an American Humane Certified brand—actually one of the first poultry processors on the West Coast to be so—Foster Farms undergoes a comprehensive audit, which addresses husbandry standards, like biosecurity issues, water and feed access, training of stock keepers, and judicious use of antimicrobials—all to ensure the health, safety and comfort of the animals, thus ensuring consumers a more quality product. Now, I’m not pointing fingers at AHC or Foster Farms exclusively, but I can’t help but think something isn’t going right when the chicken producer was linked to a salmonella outbreak infecting people 29 states last year, and this year is on the defensive against listeria.

The shocking news of these chickens’ deaths is extremely sad. That being said, as Foster Farms is taking measures to prevent a repeat incident and protect the birds’ physical safety, we can’t overlook the disease outbreaks connected to them. Is the company also addressing husbandry and facility-management practices to reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses? If so, how?

The heightened attention of Foster Farms’ food safety issues also serves as a good reminder to us consumers to not blindly buy a product just because it has a label stuck on it that makes it seem superior. Know what food labels mean and what the companies and farmers you buy from are doing to ensure the food you eat is safe, healthy and delicious. It’s all on you.

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