The salmonella outbreak linked to raw chicken from California involves multiple antibiotic-resistant strains and has a very high hospitalization rate of 42%, a food safety advocate who was briefed by government officials said Tuesday.
"There are seven strains involved in this outbreak," and many of them are antibiotic resistant, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.
DeWaal was briefed by Christopher Braden, director of the division of food-borne illness at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The outbreak has a far higher hospitalization rate, double the normal rate for salmonella," DeWaal said.
In 18 states, 278 people have been sickened in the ongoing salmonella outbreak. It has been linked to chicken produced by Foster Farms at three California plants, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Monday.
Most staffers at the CDC who would normally be providing information about the outbreak are on furlough. However, the CDC brought additional staff back to work to investigate the outbreak, Braden told DeWaal.
There have been no deaths linked to the outbreak, according to the CDC.
Commonly used antibiotics are not always effective against strains of salmonella such as this one, so stronger antibiotics must be used.
The USDA's public health alert named three facilities operated by Foster Farms as the likely source of raw chicken contaminated with salmonella. Most of the chicken has been sold in California, Oregon and Washington, and most of the illnesses have occurred in California, the USDA says.
No recall has been announced, and the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service "is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period," the news release says. Consumers can identify products that came from the three plants by looking for these packaging codes: P6137, P6137A and P7632.
In its own news release, Foster Farms says it is working with USDA inspectors and the CDC to address the outbreak. The company's food safety chief, Robert O'Connor, says the USDA inspection process has not been affected by the federal government shutdown.
Common symptoms of salmonella food poisoning include diarrhea, cramps and fever that typically start eight to 72 hours after eating food with high levels of the bacteria. Some people get chills, nausea and vomiting, lasting up to seven days, the USDA says. For people with weak immune systems, including infants and the elderly, the infection can be deadly.
Foster Farms encouraged consumers to cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees to kill disease-carrying pathogens. The USDA recommends that consumers use a food thermometer as the only way to ensure the proper temperature is reached.
Consumers shouldn't rely on cooking instructions that give a specific number of minutes of cooking for each side of chicken. The actual time may vary, depending on whether the chicken is broiled, fried or grilled and whether it was chilled or frozen when cooking began, according to the USDA.
An outbreak of the same strain of salmonella was linked to Foster Farms chicken in 2012 in Oregon and Washington. That outbreak sickened 134 people in 13 states, the CDC reported in July.
In a statement on its website, Foster Farms said it has "instituted a number of additional food safety practices, processes and technology throughout company facilities that have already proven effective in controlling salmonella in its Pacific Northwest operations earlier this year."
To a certain extent, the CDC has been flying blind when it comes to food-borne illnesses for the past week because the government shutdown meant it had to close PulseNet. That's a national computer network that connects 87 public health laboratories and look for trends and matches to spot food-borne illness outbreaks. It's one of the agency's most important tools in detecting this kind of problem.
"They had been trying to work on this outbreak for a week, doing information exchange by phone and e-mail and found the volume of data was too large," DeWaal said.
The CDC finally was able to bring back seven of the eight employees who run PulseNet, and it was up and running as of Tuesday, Braden told DeWaal.
Salmonella is known to contaminate poultry flocks in the USA. "Salmonella is naturally occurring in poultry and can be fully eradicated if raw product is properly handled and fully cooked," O'Connor said.
Several European countries have succeeded in eradicating it in their flocks through stringent controls, but those controls are considered too costly to implement in the USA.
Contributing: Kim Painter