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FRIDAY, Oct. 11 (HealthDay News) -- Three California poultry processing plants linked to a salmonella outbreak in raw chicken that's sickened 278 people in 17 states can remain open, the U.S. Agriculture Department says.
The three plants are owned by Foster Farms, which has made "immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations," according to the department, the Associated Press reported.
The company said it is cooperating with the investigation into the outbreak and implemented new food safety controls after learning about the illnesses. USDA inspectors will monitor the changes at the plants and sample the company's meat for the next three months, officials said.
The outbreak began in March and some new illnesses began as recently as two weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Most of the illnesses have been in California.
That 42 percent figure is an unusually high rate for Salmonella Heidelberg, said CDC spokesman John O'Connor.
"The typical hospitalization rate for salmonellosis is around 20 percent," he noted.
"Antibiotic resistance, as seen in this outbreak, may be associated with an increased risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals," O'Connor added.
Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem, said Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. "It's not an accident that this particular strain is resistant," he said. "I suspect it's resistant because of the overuse of antibiotics among farm animals."
Chicken live in squalor, Siegel said. "Ninety-five percent of chickens are grown in such horrific conditions that they're standing in poop and they end up infected with salmonella. If one chicken gets it, they all get it," he said.
All the chickens are treated with antibiotics, which causes the resistant bacteria to emerge, Siegel said. This use of antibiotics should be banned, he added.
In different tests, this strain of salmonella linked to Foster Farms has shown resistance to combinations of the following antibiotics: ampicillin, chloramphenicol, gentamicin, kanamycin, streptomycin, sulfisoxazole and tetracycline, O'Connor said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a public alert on Monday after receiving reports that hundreds of people had been sickened, with most illnesses reported in California.
Although the odds of getting salmonella from chicken are rare, Siegel advises cooking chicken thoroughly and preventing cross-contamination by keeping raw chicken away from other foods, cutting boards and utensils used for meal preparation. Always wash your hands after handling raw chicken, he added.
Symptoms of salmonella poisoning include diarrhea, cramps and fever. Some people get chills, nausea and vomiting, lasting up to seven days, according to the USDA. Although the condition usually gets better by itself, it can be serious, even fatal, for people with compromised immune systems, infants and the elderly.
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