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Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Empire Kosher Chicken. Potential Source Revealed, Investigation Continues.

Posted in Outbreaks & Recalls,Salmonella on September 1, 2018

New information emerges as a Salmonella outbreak linked to kosher chicken has been announced.  At this time 17 people have been infected with the same strain of Salmonella across 4 states (1 case in Maryland, 1 case in Virginia, 4 cases in Pennsylvania, and 11 cases in New York).  Current reports indicate 8 people have been hospitalized and 1 death from the state of New York has been reported.  Epidemiologic and traceback investigations have pointed fingers in the direction of kosher chicken products, and more specifically, Empire Kosher brand chicken.

What Do We Know So Far?

Information is still coming in on this outbreak and the suspected source.  Details released on August 29, 2018 have given us some clues as to where the outbreak may have started and how investigators came to this conclusion.  We know the species of Salmonella bacteria that is the root of the outbreak.  Patient interviews have pointed to a potential source.  The outbreak strain was identified at a facility used to manufacture the potential source.

We Know the Species

Based on genetic information obtained through DNA fingerprinting, the outbreak strain has been identified as Salmonella I 4,[5],12:i:-. Both pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and whole genome sequencing (WGS) was performed on patient samples.  This allowed genetic information to be uploaded onto PulseNet (a national subtyping network shared with public health and food regulatory agencies laboratories).  This system is coordinated by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and allows epidemiologists to ping existing cases against others in the database.

Whole Genome Sequencing looks at the specific bacteria causing the illness to see how closely genetically related samples are.  For example, you and your neighbor may be human, same race, same demographics.  But you and your sister share even more closely related genomes.  In these cases, Whole Genome Sequencing established patient samples were essentially siblings.  They all originated from the same source.

We Know A Time Line

Illness onset started from September 25, 2017 to June 4, 2018.  Additional illness may be added to this list as there is a lag between when a person initially becomes ill to the point in which it is reported, linked to the outbreak, and included in the outbreak report.

We Know There is a Link to Kosher Chicken

Most patients involved in the outbreak have been interviewed.  These patients were asked about their eating habits and other exposures during the week before becoming ill.  ALL patients indicated eating chicken products.  Only 9 remembered brand information, and almost all of them (7 patients) cited Empire Kosher brand chicken specifically.

We Know Outbreak Salmonella Strain Has Been Found at Two Facilities

The specific outbreak strain identified in patient samples was also found in raw chicken samples collected from two different facilities.  One of those facilities processes Empire Kosher brand chicken.  The other facility is still under investigation.

The samples collected from these facilities were part of the United States Department of Agriculture – Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) as part of routine sampling at slaughter and processing establishments and not directly part of outbreak investigation.  Whole Genome Sequencing of these samples indicate they are closely related to the Salmonella strain from those in the outbreak.

We Know a Health Alert Has Been Issued

Out of an abundance of caution the USDA FSIS and Empire Kosher Poultry, Inc have issued a Public Health Alert for Empire Kosher brand raw chicken items (including raw whole chicken and raw chicken parts) that were sold to consumers between September 2017 to June 2018.  This Public Health Alert cites the investigation in the multi-state Salmonella outbreak linked to 4 northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.

The company has been adament to point out that a recall has not been initiated:

“The CDC is not advising that consumers avoid eating Empire® brand chicken and no products have been recalled or withdrawn from the marketplace. As with any poultry, when handled and prepared properly, including thoroughly cooking as instructed, our products pose no risk to consumers.”

Raw chicken is a product that many people freeze, allowing for the affected product to stick around in households for an extended period of time.  The FSIS is concerned that more people may become sick because potentially infected product is still in people’s homes.  “Consumers who have purchased these products are urged to properly handle, prepare, and cook these raw chicken products.”

As part of the Public Health Alert, a phone number was published for consumers and members of the media to contact with questions.  Questions may be directed to Empire Kosher Specialists at 1-877-627-2803.

The CDC Has Offered Advice to Consumers and Retailers

In an effort to increase public health awareness and safety in response to this outbreak and to help prevent future outbreaks and illness, the CDC has offered advice to consumers and retailers with respect to raw chicken products.

At this time, the CDC is advising that “people avoid eating kosher chicken or Empire Kosher brand chicken.”  While one facility that produced Empire Kosher brand chicken tested positive for genetically similar outbreak Salmonella strain, another facility did as well.  All of the pieces have not been put together and additional information must be gathered.

Consumers are urged to always handle raw chicken products carefully and to cook it thoroughly to prevent foodborne illness.  Habits such as washing hands before and after preparing raw chicken can help reduce foodborne illness.  DO NOT WASH raw poultry.  While this might have been passed down as a safety protocol from previous generations, it is not a safe practice.  Germs found in poultry juices can splash and spread to other areas, spreading contamination and increasing the likelihood of illness.  Thoroughly clean counters, utensils, and anything that touches raw chicken with hot, soapy water.  If possible, use a separate cutting board for raw chicken and other raw meats.

Cook raw chicken thoroughly.  Do not trust color or texture, as this may not be accurate.  Always use a food thermometer and cook to an internal temperature of 165 ⁰F measuring at the thickest part of the meat.  Leftovers should also be reheated to an internal temperature of 165 ⁰F.

Signs and Symptoms of Salmonella Infection

Onset of symptoms usually begins around 12 to 72 hours of exposure.  Symptoms often last anywhere from 4 to 7 days and most normally healthy individuals can recover without treatment.  Unfortunately, these individuals are often not included in outbreak statistics so data from an outbreak is often under-reported.

Symptoms often include diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps.  Sometimes diarrhea may be so severe that the patient becomes dehydrated and warrants hospitalization to recover.  In rare but serious cases Salmonella may spread from the intestines into the body’s bloodstream allowing it to reach other parts of the body.  In this case, prompt antibiotic treatment is crucial or infection may prove fatal.

Certain groups of people are at higher risk of becoming sick and experiencing more serious infection than others.  Children under the age of 5 years old, adults older than 65 years old, and those with a compromised immune system (due to illness or medication) are in the higher risk category.

Seek medical attention if you feel you may be sick with Salmonella after consuming chicken related to this outbreak.

If you believe you’ve developed Salmonella after eating Empire Kosher chicken, we want you to know that a Salmonella lawyer at the Lange Law Firm, PLLC is currently investigating this matter and offering free legal consultations.  If you or a loved one have become ill, you can call (833) 330-3663 for a free consultation or complete the form here.

By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)