Chicken Plant Spreading Salmonella, Agriculture Department Powerless to Stop Them

A 2001 court decision crippled the federal government's ability to shut down food plants that are sickening people.

Photo Credit: © koko-tewan/

Salmonella has made hundreds of people sick across the country in recent weeks. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is doing little to stop its spread, as Think Progress’ Aviva Shen reports.

The recent salmonella outbreak has sickened at least 300 people, with 42 percent of the victims being hospitalized--an alarming rate. But the Agriculture Department has not shut down the place where the salmonella came from: the California-based Foster Farms. Instead, the department, which did threaten to close the plant down, is keeping it open because the company promised to make “immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations.”

The USDA is not closing the plant down because a 2001 court decision crippled their ability to do so, as Shen notes. A conservative federal court had ruled that the USDA could not shutdown Supreme Beef--which had failed salmonella tests--because the meat would be safe if it was cooked the right way. The court decision means the USDA can only ask companies to voluntarily recall products.

So the USDA has been forced to embark on public campaigns to educate consumers on how to avoid salmonella, instead of taking action to shut down bad food plants. This is what’s happening with Foster Farms. Their products will continue to be made, and the company has released a statement stating that “the alert that regulators issued based on illnesses over the past seven months emphasizes the need to fully cook and properly handle raw poultry.”

The salmonella outbreak is occurring in the midst of a government shutdown that has furloughed federal workers, including those who work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When the salmonella outbreak made headlines, the CDC ordered some furloughed employees back to work to investigate it. But “fewer than half of the 80 employees in the division that monitors food-borne illnesses will be coming back, and there are an estimated 30 outbreaks to be investigated,” the Los Angeles Timesreported.


Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.