There’s no recall of Empire brand chicken, just a reminder to follow food safety protocols.
An alert issued by the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) on Aug. 24 caused a wave of concern — and lots of confusion — among consumers who keep kosher. The public health alert, issued “out of an abundance of caution,” notified the public about a potential link between Empire Kosher Poultry raw chicken products and a recent Salmonella outbreak. While the alert was intended to remind consumers how to safely handle and prepare raw chicken, many misinterpreted it as a recall of Empire chicken.
The Current Status: An Outbreak Investigation and a Food Safety Reminder
“There is no current recall of Empire chicken,” said an FSIS official.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and FSIS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), are investigating a Salmonella outbreak that has sickened 17 people in four states — including one person each in Maryland and Virginia — from September 2017 through June 2018. Half were hospitalized because of the illness, and one person in New York died.
The public health alert related to Empire chicken was not issued until a few months after the last known patient was diagnosed, because the process of identifying a potential outbreak and determining the source takes significant time and resources, according to FSIS. “It was not until August 24 that FSIS and the CDC were confident that outbreaks came from a common strain, and that Empire Chicken was the probable source,” the FSIS official said.
In a statement on the subject, Empire Kosher said: “We have been cooperating fully with the USDA and the CDC on this matter... As with any poultry, when handled and prepared properly, including thoroughly cooking as instructed, our products pose no risk to consumers.”
The Process: Investigating a Salmonella Outbreak
When someone is diagnosed with Salmonella, the state-level health agencies use DNA fingerprinting to identify the specific strain of bacteria. This process can take two to four weeks. During this time, local health officials attempt to trace the source of the infection via methods including interviewing the patient or obtaining receipts or shopper card information. Once all of that data is gathered, the state health agency sends the information to the CDC.
CDC used PulseNet, the national subtyping network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories it coordinates, to identify patients with the specific strain, Salmonella I 4,,12:i: -. CDC interviewed 14 of the 17 patients. All 14 reported eating chicken products. Of the nine people who specified a brand, seven reported eating Empire kosher chicken.
The Alert: A Reminder, Not A Recall
During routine testing, FSIS identified Salmonella I 4,,12:i:- at two facilities, one of which processes Empire kosher chicken. However, this is not cause for a recall — poultry is frequently contaminated with Salmonella.
In an investigation notice posted on Aug. 29, CDC clearly stated: “CDC is not advising that people avoid eating kosher chicken or Empire Kosher brand chicken.” The Aug. 24 FSIS alert explained the purpose of issuing an alert: “Consumers who have purchased these products are urged to properly handle, prepare, and cook these raw chicken products.”
Representatives from local kosher stores Moti’s Market in Rockville, Maryland, Shalom Kosher in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Seven Mile Market in Pikesville, Maryland, all expressed confidence in Empire products and confirmed that they currently stock Empire chicken and will continue to do so. (Seasons of Baltimore did not respond to a request for comment.) All three stores emphasized that the most important thing is to cook chicken to the appropriate temperature.
Despite expressing confidence in the product in emails to local Jewish listservs and via phone interview, Moti’s has very little Empire chicken in stock. “The issue we faced is that the consumers aren’t interested in the product, regardless of what FSIS says,” according to owner Gideon Sasson. He repeatedly stressed that food safety and kashrut are the store’s top priorities. “It’s our business — we cannot afford to fail when it comes to food safety,” he said.
Larry Dekelbaum, owner of Shalom Kosher, highlighted a notice from Empire, which is displayed above the poultry cooler. The special notice from Empire declares: “Our Poultry is Safe!” The notice then reiterates USDA’s specific instructions for safely handling and cooking raw chicken.
The Bottom Line: Follow Food Safety Protocols
In the spirit of the public health alert, and of National Food Safety Education Month (which happens to be September), here is a quick review of the four steps to food safety, and how they pertain to raw chicken specifically:
1. Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often.
2. Separate: Keep all raw meats and poultry separate from other foods.
3. Cook: Use a meat thermometer to confirm that all poultry is cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165°F.
4. Chill: Refrigerate all chicken (raw and cooked) within two hours (or one hour if the temperature is 90°F or higher).
FSIS, Empire, and local kosher stores all agreed: The most important takeaway for consumers is to safely handle and prepare chicken, following the steps above.
If you live in the areas identified and have any questions you can call 1-877-627-2803 to speak with an Empire Consumer Specialist. For more food safety tips and best practices, visit foodsafety.gov.
By Malka Goldberg
Malka Goldberg is the managing editor of Kol HaBirah. She previously managed a food safety website.