Firefighter sues Foster Farms as new salmonella cases appear

The CDC says an outbreak that started a year ago is still causing problems, and now a Fresno County fire captain is suing over it.
March 4, 2014 12:00:00 AM PST
There's new trouble with Foster Farms chicken and salmonella. The government says an outbreak that started a year ago is still causing problems, and now a Fresno County fire captain is suing over it.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind filed against Foster Farms over last year's outbreak.

The latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out Monday night. It shows more than 50 new cases of salmonella the government believes can be traced back to Foster Farms plants in Fresno or Livingston. And now a firefighter says the same strain literally knocked him off his feet.

Until last October, Jeremiah Wittwer was the muscular firefighter you see in family photos. But in a lawsuit filed Monday, he says he suffered a severe and debilitating injury after eating contaminated Foster Farms chicken.

The federal government says 481 people have gotten sick from salmonella associated with three Valley plants since March 2013. 38% of those people have been hospitalized.

Wittwer may be one of the worst cases. His attorney tells Action News the salmonella-related infection seeped into the Fresno County fire captain's spine. He lost a lot of weight and doctors told him he may never walk again.

Only after three months of brutal rehab could he get back on his feet and get back to work. But despite the government's discovery this week that salmonella infections have not stopped, Foster Farms has not issued a recall.

Since a health alert last October, the company says it implemented a salmonella control program and that it's drastically reduced the amount of the bacteria in its chicken.

"We are on the right track, and have made outstanding progress," said Foster Farms CEO Ron Foster in a written statement. "We want to ensure that {customers} have the safest, healthiest experience."

"Their position is 'We don't believe there's enough salmonella in our chicken to require a recall,'" said ABC30 legal analyst Tony Capozzi.

Capozzi says Foster Farms is in a tough spot: Ordering a recall now would imply they know something's wrong. But if Wittwer proves tainted chicken is to blame for his injuries, the mounting number of infections could lead to a huge financial loss.

"The plaintiff will want that in evidence," Capozzi said. "They'll want it for one particular reason. It's going to show that they're just blatantly disregarding any possible problems and if you can show these damages and that they're liable for it, Foster Farms is going to be hit with a hefty, hefty punitive damage."

Capozzi says those punitive damages could run up to 3% of a company's net worth. Foster Farms is a private company so that information isn't publicly available, but Forbes magazine estimated its 2012 revenue at $2.4 billion.

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Foster Farms released the following statement to Action News:

FOSTER FARMS SALMONELLA LEVELS FAR BETTER THAN INDUSTRY AVERAGE
March 3, 2014

Foster Farms is committed to producing poultry products of the highest quality, to the highest standards of food safety. Since October 2013, the company has implemented a multifaceted Salmonella control program that has reduced the prevalence of Salmonella at the parts level to less than 10 percent ? well below the USDA-measured industry benchmark of 25 percent. USDA officials have affirmed that the interventions are working and confirmed, "Foster Farms is performing far better than the industry average."

Recent, in-market testing conducted by Foster Farms at the point of purchase further underscored that while Salmonella can be present in all brands of chicken, Foster Farms is among the safest choices available to consumers. Foster Farms will continue to work with its Food Safety Advisory Board, USDA-FSIS, and leading independent experts to further improve upon food safety.

Foster Farms CEO Ron Foster said, "We are on the right track, and have made outstanding progress. Millions of consumers continue to enjoy Foster Farms poultry products each day, and we want to ensure that they have the safest, healthiest experience."

About Foster Farms

Foster Farms reminds consumers to follow the Poultry ABCs ? Always Be Careful. Fresh poultry must be handled and cooked in accordance with the safe handling guidelines on all packages of chicken. These include: keeping the product refrigerated or frozen; thawing in refrigerator or microwave; keeping raw meat and poultry separate from other foods; washing working surfaces (including cutting boards), utensils and hands after touching raw meat or poultry; keeping hot foods hot; and refrigerating leftovers immediately or discarding. All fresh poultry products should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165?F (boneless and ground) and 180?F and 170?F (bone-in: breast and drums; thighs and wings), as measured by a meat thermometer. Visit www.fosterfarms.com to learn more.

Since 1939, West Coast families have depended on Foster Farms for premium quality poultry products. Family-owned and operated, the company continues its legacy of excellence and commitment to quality established by its founders, Max and Verda Foster. Foster Farms specializes in fresh, all natural chicken products free of preservatives, additives or injected sodium enhancers. Based in California's Central Valley, with ranches also in the Pacific Northwest, the company's fresh chicken is produced in or near each region served and delivered fresh to the store in 48 hours or less. All Foster Farms fresh chicken products are certified humane by American Humane Association. Foster Farms also produces delicious pre-marinated, ready-to-cook and fully cooked products that meet the quality and convenience needs of today's home cooks, retailers, warehouse clubs and foodservice customers.


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