Food & Agriculture

USDA Public Health Alert on Empire Kosher Chicken Sends Mixed Message to Consumers

Chicken Tied to Virulent Strain of Salmonella is “Perfectly Safe,” According to Company, Despite Concerns Raised by Government Officials

Washington, D.C.— On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and Empire Kosher Poultry, Inc. issued a public health alert informing the public of a potential link between Empire Kosher Poultry, Inc.’s raw chicken products and a cluster of Salmonella I 4,[5],12:i illnesses in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States. The outbreak strain has caused an estimated half of affected case-patients to require hospitalization, an indication that it is a particularly virulent form of the bacteria.

Despite the illnesses associated with Empire’s chicken, the company has not initiated a recall. The most recent documented illnesses from the outbreak strain occurred in June of 2018, and in its public health alert, FSIS says that the agency “is concerned that some product may be frozen and in consumers’ freezers.” Yet FSIS is not advising consumers to throw any Empire chicken products out. Rather, the agency advises: “Consumers who have purchased these products are urged to properly handle, prepare, and cook these raw chicken products.” For its part, Empire has provided a 1-800-number for those wishing to contact an “Empire Kosher Specialist.” As of Sunday night, that number played a recorded message that tells consumers that the implicated chicken is “perfectly safe.”

“This chicken is not perfectly safe,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. “Unfortunately, federal food safety protections for consumers have not kept up with the times. At the very least, when a salmonellosis outbreak like this one occurs, federal regulators should declare any product contaminated with the matching Salmonella strain to be adulterated. That action would allow for a recall of product with the outbreak strain. It would also provide some measure of assurance to consumers that the company is taking the right steps to remedy the problem. This combination of identifying a threat, yet stopping short of telling consumers to avoid the product, is reminiscent of the Foster Farms debacle.”

Two multistate outbreaks of salmonella infections linked to Foster Farms Poultry—the first occurring between June 2012 and April 2013, and the second between March 2013 and July 2014—caused over 700 confirmed illnesses, and may have sickened as many 16,000 people during the course of the outbreaks. Although genetic matches and epidemiological data left little doubt about the role of Foster Farms in the outbreaks, FSIS regulators did not request a recall until July of 2014, when the agency identified one of the outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg in an intact sample of Foster Farms brand chicken, collected from the home of a person in California infected with the same strain.

“Consumers deserve a food safety system that gives them, rather than big food companies, the benefit of the doubt,” said Gremillion. “A large body of research shows that safe handling practices, while critically important, may not always kill Salmonella. Some strains may even survive a run through a commercial dishwasher. Poultry companies have a responsibility to protect their customers, and they can do more, particularly through on-farm practices like preventing contamination in feed, vaccinations, and better sanitation. Countries like Sweden and Denmark have shown that it’s possible to eliminate Salmonella from poultry altogether. Consumers in the U.S. should not have to read between the lines of public health alerts like this one to avoid becoming part of an outbreak.”

Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1010