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.
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