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Foster Farms poultry plants remain open despite outcry

By Michael Hirtzer

(Reuters) - Three poultry plants in California that were the source of a Salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people in 20 states will continue to operate despite demands by lawmakers and consumer advocate groups that they be shut down.

Foster Farms' plants in Fresno and Livingston will remain open after the poultry company implemented new "food safety controls over the last two months," Ron Foster, president and chief executive officer of the privately held California-based company, said in a statement.

The U.S. Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service said it reviewed the company's safety plans on Thursday and federal inspectors will remain at the plants.

A total of 317 people across the United States were infected by the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak, with 42 percent of those needing hospitalization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday.

There have been no deaths, the CDC said.

Salmonella, a common bacterial foodborne illness, can cause diarrhea, nausea, fever and cramping, and can be fatal to infants and the elderly.

The decision to keep the plants open was "a disgrace" by USDA, U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, Democrat of New York, said in a statement on Friday. She said USDA should have moved to shut down the poultry plants.

"The USDA's toothless decisions endangers public health today, and encourages bad actors in the food industry to continue to break the law tomorrow," Slaughter said

The Center for Science in the Public Interest said the company should recall chicken from store shelves, a move Foster Farms resisted.

The company in the release said raw chicken, if properly handled and cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius), is safe to consume.

Foster Farms spokesman Michael Fineman declined to provide Reuters with details of the new safety measures the company has put into place.

The USDA is largely closed due to U.S. government budget impasse that has led to the furloughing of hundreds of thousands of workers but meat inspectors, deemed "essential" employees, remain on the job.

(Additional reporting by P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)

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