A salmonella outbreak has been linked to kosher chicken. Pictured: chicken

Update: On Dec. 7, the CDC increased the case count in this outbreak to 25 people across six states, including 11 hospitalizations. The agency also declared the outbreak to be over.

If you purchased Empire Kosher whole chicken or chicken parts between September 2017 and June 2018 and still have it in your freezer, Consumer Reports advises that you throw it away because it may be contaminated with a dangerous strain of salmonella.

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The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday that 17 people in four states — Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — have been sickened by chicken found to contain a virulent strain of salmonella. Eight people have been hospitalized as a result, and one has died.

It’s likely more cases will be announced, says Laura Gieraltowski, Ph.D., team lead of the CDC’s foodborne outbreak response team.

All of the victims reported eating chicken in the week before they became ill, and most of them said they ate kosher chicken. Of the nine people who named a brand of chicken, seven said they had eaten Empire Kosher chicken that was sold between September 2017 and June 2018.

The CDC’s announcement came on the heels of a health alert issued by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) late last week that also connected the illnesses to Empire Kosher chicken. The agency said it was “concerned” that some consumers might still have this chicken in their freezers, but did not advise them to throw the chicken away.

Instead, it recommended following “proper handling and cooking procedures,” such as cooking the chicken to 165°F. In response to an email requesting more information, a FSIS spokesperson sent back the same information from the agency’s public health alert, as well as general information on handling meat safely.

In an abundance of caution, Consumer Reports food safety experts recommend that you not eat Empire Kosher whole chicken or chicken parts purchased between September and June. This is because the salmonella strain involved appears to be virulent and a particular brand has been identified.

“I always use the family test in situations like these,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety testing and research at Consumer Reports. “Would I feel safe feeding this product to my family? In this case, the answer is no.”

A Virulent Strain

Empire Kosher, the largest producer of kosher chicken in the United States, announced last week it had set up a special toll-free number for concerned consumers.

CR called and listened to the pre-recorded message, which is nearly 2 minutes long. Empire Kosher says its chicken “is perfectly safe to consume, when stored, handled, and cooked properly." The message also explains that salmonella is quite common on chicken, and includes tips on how to keep yourself from getting sick.

While it’s true that finding salmonella bacteria on chicken is common — the USDA allows about 15 percent of chicken parts at processing plants to test positive for salmonella, for example — some strains can be significantly more dangerous than others, says Rogers. The strain involved in this outbreak, called 4,[5],12:i, is known to cause serious illness.

“Such a strain, which in this case was lethal and sent half its victims to the hospital, is particularly worrisome,” Rogers says.

The FSIS should have encouraged a recall, or at the very least advised consumers not to eat Empire Kosher chicken purchased in the September to June timeframe, adds Thomas Gremillion, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, a consortium of nonprofit consumer organizations that Consumer Reports is part of.

“While it’s true that you can cook chicken really well to kill off pathogens, this seems like a pretty dangerous strain to expose people to,” says Gremillion.

Keeping Consumers Safe

Ellen Deutsch, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Hain Celestial, which owns Empire Kosher, says there are only “anecdotal” connections between the company’s products and this outbreak. Still, she says “even one sickness” is too many if it was definitively caused by the company’s products. She adds that the company takes “food safety and the health of our consumers very seriously.”

“Once the FSIS and other regulators give us more information [about this outbreak], we can decide if we need to change our recommendations. As of now, we believe our products are completely safe, if you follow the proper handling and cooking procedures,” she says.

However, the CDC says that “the outbreak strain of Salmonella I 4,[5],12:i:- has been identified in samples from raw chicken collected at two facilities, including one that processes Empire Kosher brand chicken. The samples collected by USDA-FSIS at the slaughter and processing establishments ... showed that the salmonella strain from these samples is closely related genetically to the salmonella strain from ill people.”

The Pennsylvania plant that processes Empire Kosher chicken (plant number M1015+P1015) also processes chicken from other brands — Alle, Galil, Kosher Valley, Malchus, and Pyramid. “Government agencies have not linked any of these brands to the outbreak, but because they come from the same plant, the possibility that some of that chicken may be contaminated exists,” says CR’s Rogers.

While neither the CDC or FSIS is directing consumers to throw away potentially contaminated Empire Kosher chicken, the CDC’s Gieraltowski told CR that “consumers can take it on themselves to throw [Empire Kosher products] away, if that's what they decide is best based on the information on hand."

CR’s’ food safety experts are troubled by this advice, which they believe may not go far enough to keep consumers from getting sick.

“Even though proper handling techniques and thorough cooking can kill salmonella and other bacteria, there’s no reason people should take on the risk if they have an easy solution: Buy new chicken,”  says Rogers. However, while Rogers says to throw away any unused frozen Empire Chicken bought between September and June, he notes that as of now, there’s no indication that fresh Empire Kosher chicken currently in stores is contaminated with the outbreak strain.

Consumer Reports will update its advice if the situation changes.

Kosher Confusion

There may be some common misconceptions about what kosher certification signifies, says Charlotte Vallaeys, a CR senior policy analyst.

“It’s not a guarantee of safer or cleaner products,” Vallaeys says.

Kosher certification, developed to adhere to religious dietary laws observed by Jews, requires that animals not be stunned before slaughter and that they should be slaughtered with a razor-sharp knife. The carcasses are also drained and soaked in salted water to remove the blood. But these rules for the preparation and processing of kosher meat don’t make it safer to eat.

“There isn’t any reason kosher chicken would be more or less susceptible to pathogens like salmonella,” says Vallaeys.

What’s Proper Handling Anyway?

Whenever you prepare any chicken or turkey, you always have to treat it as though it’s potentially contaminated with pathogens such as salmonella, and take the following steps.

•Don’t wash raw poultry in the sink. This splashes the juices around the sink and countertops, where it can contaminate other foods if the poultry contains harmful bacteria.

Wash your hands every time you touch raw poultry. Wash countertops and sinks with hot soapy water.

•Don’t use the same cutting board, plate, or knife on cooked poultry or fruits and vegetables as you did to prepare raw poultry.

•Cook poultry to 165°F. Use a meat thermometer. Methods such as piercing the poultry to see if the juices run clear or wiggling the drumstick are unreliable.

Symptoms of salmonella usually take 12 to 72 hours to develop. Typically these include diarrhea, often accompanied by fever, abdominal pain, and occasionally vomiting. Contact your doctor if you have a fever of 101.5° F or higher, bloody diarrhea, or if you experience severe dehydration.