WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service is threatening to shutter three Foster Farms processing plants that have been linked to an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg that has so far sickened 278 people. The agency has the authority to withhold marks of inspection and to refuse to provide inspection at the plants, which would prevent the company from shipping products from the plants.

The U.S.D.A. gave Foster Farms until Oct. 10 to explain how the company plans to fix the problems at its plants, according to a Notice of Intended Enforcement (N.O.I.E.) delivered to the company on Oct. 7. The letter said tests of raw poultry processed at the plants found one or more outbreak strains of Salmonella.

“Although presence of the outbreak strains alone is not evidence that product is adulterated, presence on product coupled with illnesses suggests that the sanitary conditions in the establishment under which the product is produced could pose a serious ongoing threat to public health,” according to the N.O.I.E.

The U.S.D.A. also expressed concerns about the company's food safety record before the outbreak. Foster Farms received multiple noncompliance citations for insanitary conditions. The F.S.I.S. documented 12 noncompliance records from Jan. 1, 2013, through Sept. 27 for findings of fecal material on poultry carcasses.

“Furthermore, F.S.I.S. has identified multiple noncompliances, including but not limited to findings of poor sanitary dressing practices, insanitary food contact surfaces, insanitary non-food contact surfaces and direct product contamination as evidenced by the documentation of a considerable number of recurring NRs issued to your establishment...,” according to the N.O.I.E.

 “On behalf of the Foster family, our company, and our more than 12,000 employees, I want to reassure you that we are taking every possible step to ensure the current and future safety of our chicken products,” said Ron Foster, chief executive officer. “Food safety is, and has always been, at the heart of our business. I am deeply sorry for any illness associated with Foster Farms chicken and for any concern or confusion caused by this week’s activity.

 “We have a 75-year history for excellence because of our commitment to continuous advancement in food safety. We are putting every resource we have toward the continued safety of our fresh chicken.”

Mr. Foster emphasized that no recall is in effect, and that Foster Farms poultry products are safe to eat if properly handled and fully cooked.

Despite no recall being in effect, at least one retailer has pulled Foster Farms products from its shelves. On Oct. 8, The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, said it was removing products from Fred Meyer, Fry's, King Soopers/City Market, Ralphs, Food 4 Less, Smith's and New Mexico, and QFC stores and warehouses in the regions of the country where it sells Foster Farms chicken from the three affected plants.