Business analyst Mark Lacter joins KPCC once a week for an in-depth look at economic issues in Southern California.
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Chicken contamination at Foster Farms sheds light on food regulation

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The contamination of Foster Farms chickens has provided insight into food regulation.

Steve Julian: Business analyst Mark Lacter, had we been paying attention before this happened?

Mark Lacter: You know, Steve, we often have an out of sight, out of mind attitude when it comes to food safety, and - as we're seeing with this episode - the government has a way of enabling that attitude.  What stands out, first of all, is that people started getting sick from salmonella-contaminated chicken back in March, and yet, it wasn't until the past few weeks that news stories began appearing about the seriousness of the problems.

Julian: At last check, more than 400 people have been infected, with most of them in California...

Lacter: Right, and Foster Farms, which is based in Merced County, controls two-thirds of the poultry market along the West Coast.  No fatalities so far, but many of the people who became sick had to be hospitalized - and that leads to still more concerns that the salmonella strains were resistant to antibiotics.  Now, why it took this long for consumers to be made aware that there was a problem tells you something about the way the federal government regulates poultry plants.  It was only last Friday, after the company had seen a 25 percent drop in sales, when the president of Foster Farms decided to go public.  He said he was embarrassed by the outbreak, and promised to change the company's processing facilities so that salmonella can be better identified.

Julian: Where was the US government in this?

Lacter: Apparently, the Department of Agriculture only requires testing for levels of salmonella at the time of slaughter - not later on, after the poultry is cut into parts.  Foster Farms now says it will do retesting at that later stage.  What's also interesting is that Foster Farms was not asked to recall any of its products because the chicken is considered safe as long as it's handled properly and then cooked to the right temperature, which is at least 165 degrees.  That's why some supermarkets have kept carrying the brand.

Julian: Can the government even order a recall?

Lacter: Not in a case like this - and that's because of a court case in the 1990s involving a Texas meat producer that federal inspectors were ready to shut down due to a salmonella outbreak involving ground beef.  The company sued the government, arguing that salmonella is naturally occurring, and therefore, not an adulterant subject to government regulation.  And the courts agreed.  Foster Farms has been using much the same argument.

Julian: Why isn't there more public outrage over this?

Lacter: Well, again, we go back to out of sight, out of mind.  Slaughterhouses are not exactly fun places, and they're usually not well covered by the news media until something bad happens, like the Foster Farms situation.

Julian: Chino comes to mind - a story we covered.

Lacter: That's when an animal rights group used a hidden camera to record inhumane treatment of cattle at a meat processing plant.  That company was forced into bankruptcy.  Another reason coverage is spotty is because it's not always easy to trace someone's illness to a contaminated piece of meat or chicken.  And, that leads to lots of misinformation.  The broader issue is figuring out a way to monitor these facilities without the process becoming cost prohibitive.  The Agriculture Department has been pushing a pilot program that would allow plants to speed up processing lines, and replace government inspectors with employees from the poultry companies themselves.

Julian: The idea being?

Lacter: The idea being to establish safeguards that can prevent problems before they get out of hand.  But, this is pretty controversial stuff, and advocacy groups representing poultry workers say that processing lines need to be slowed down, not speeded up.  So, you have this ongoing back and forth involving industry, government, consumer groups, and labor organizations.  And unfortunately, most of us tend to move on after one of these outbreaks gets cleared up.

Mark Lacter writes for Los Angeles Magazine and pens the business blog at LA