A Florida child visiting Hawaii in July is suspected of being sickened in an outbreak of drug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg linked to tainted raw chicken, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It was not immediately known which island the child was on when his or her illness was reported, said state Department of Health spokeswoman Janice Okubo. And, Health Department officials were investigating whether the child was exposed to the chicken in the islands or elsewhere, she said.
The visitor was younger than 5 years old, said Dr. Sarah Park, the state's epidemiologist. The child apparently became ill in July, and the results of a stool sample were entered into a national database. The sample results later tied the case to the salmonella outbreak that began in March.
Maui store officials said that without an official recall, the Foster Farms chicken product remained on store shelves. However, customers were advised to cook the chicken thoroughly or could return the product for a reimbursement, officials said.
Nearly 280 people in 18 states, predominantly in California, reported becoming sick after eating chicken from three Foster Farms facilities in California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. The illnesses triggered a public health alert.
Food safety officials said that they were unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period. Raw products from the facilities bear one of the establishment numbers inside a USDA mark of inspection or elsewhere on the package. Those numbers are: P6137, P6137A and P7632.
Foster Farms chicken with the identified codes were being sold at the Maui Lani and Kahului Safeway stores on Monday and Tuesday, the Kahului Foodland store on Tuesday and at Costco on Wednesday, according to a Wailuku resident, who asked not to be identified.
Keith Turner, director of public and government affairs for Safeway Inc., Northern California Division, said Wednesday afternoon that there has not been a recall of the chicken product as of Wednesday afternoon. However, "Safeway will readily accept any returns from our customers on any Foster Farms Fresh Chicken or Fresh Safeway Farms or Eating Right Fresh Chicken," he said.
"It is important to note that this is a public alert only and neither a recall nor a withdrawal," he said in a written statement.
Customers should carefully handle all raw chicken and cook it to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, as measured by a meat thermometer, he said.
Safeway customer concerns can be directed to the Foster Farms hot line at (800) 338-8051 or the Safeway consumer hot line at (888) SAFEWAY (723-3929).
Foodland spokeswoman Sheryl Toda said Foodland officials were "looking into the situation" Wednesday evening, but there had not been a recall of the chicken product.
As more information becomes available, Foodland officials would take action to ensure the safety of customers, she said. And, if customers want to return the chicken, Foodland stores would take back the product and provide a full refund.
A Costco manager said the product has not been pulled from store shelves, but the store is following all food safety guidelines from Costco and Foster Farms. Those include advising customers to cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, he said.
USDA officials said the products were mainly distributed to retail outlets in California, Oregon and Washington state.
The USDA investigations indicate that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken and other brand chicken produced at Foster Farms plants are the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections. Illnesses were linked to Foster Farms brand chicken through epidemiologic, laboratory and traceback investigations conducted by local, state and federal officials.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was partnering with state health departments to monitor the outbreak while federal food safety officials continue their investigation.
The USDA was threatening to shut down the three Foster Farms facilities in California. Officials reported that Foster Farms has until today to tell the department how it will fix the problem. The company was notified Monday.
Sampling by the USDA in September showed that the raw chicken processed by the California Foster Farm facilities included strains of salmonella that were linked with the outbreak. But the company has not recalled any of its products.
In a letter to Foster Farms, USDA said the samples coupled with illnesses suggest that the sanitary conditions at the facility "could pose a serious ongoing threat to public health."
The first illnesses in the outbreak were reported in March, and the outbreak has had a high rate of hospitalizations. The CDC said 42 percent of the victims were hospitalized, about double the normal rate, and the disease is resistant to many antibiotics, making it a dangerous outbreak.
The USDA can halt production at the chicken-processing facilities by withdrawing government inspectors who are required to be in meat-processing plants every day. In a letter, Yudhbir Sharma of USDA's Alameda, Calif., district office, said Foster Farms has failed to demonstrate that it has adequate controls in place to address the salmonella issue. He said that in one of the facilities, 25 percent of the samples taken were positive for salmonella.
The letter said that prior to the outbreak, USDA inspectors had documented "fecal material on carcasses" along with "poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary nonfood contact surfaces and direct product contamination."
In a statement Monday, Foster Farms President Ron Foster said the company regretted any illnesses and was taking steps on its own to ensure food safety. He said the company is working with the USDA.
Salmonella is a pathogen that contaminates meat during slaughter and processing. It is especially common in raw chicken. The infections can be avoided by proper handling and cooking of raw poultry.
The pathogen can be life-threatening to those with weakened immune systems. It causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within a few days of eating a contaminated product. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days.
Consumers with food safety questions can "Ask Karen," the food safety virtual representative available 24 hours a day at askkaren.gov.
* The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.