Union Democrat staff

Chicken products possibly tainted with a drug-resistant strain of salmonella bacteria were sold by stores in Tuolumne County, according to public health officials, who urged public caution.

The products were made by Foster Farms. They were possibly contaminated with a bacteria called salmonella Heidelberg, which is resistant to several antibiotics.

The products are linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak investigated since early October by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Department of Agriculture.

Clusters of illnesses were traced back to chicken that came from three Foster Farms processing plants in the San Joaquin Valley. Those plants - two in Fresno and one in Livingston - have not been shut down.

A week ago, the USDA issued a "public health alert" for raw Foster Farms chicken with the establishment marks "P6137," "P6137A," and "P7632."

Dr. Todd Stolp, Tuolumne County's public health officer, said contaminated products have been sold in Tuolumne County. Health officials are now working to identify the vendors, which may include restaurants as well as stores.

The earlier "health alert" was not a recall. Foster Farms and state health officials instead urged consumers to follow handling and cooking instructions on food packages to avoid contamination.

Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health and state health officer, said the department had not requested a recall of the products becausethey are safe if handled and cooked properly.

Stolp, however, said people with the suspect establishment marks on their chicken would be wise to throw it away.

On Saturday, about 40,000 pounds of rotisserie chicken and related products were actually recalled from a Costco store in South San Francisco.

The Costco products included "Kirkland Signature Foster Farms" rotisserie chickens, "Kirkland Farm" rotisserie chicken soup, rotisserie chicken leg quarters, and rotisserie chicken salad, according to the USDA.

As of Friday, 317 people from 20 states and Puerto Rico had become ill with salmonella Heidelberg associated with the Foster Farms chicken. About 73 percent were from California.

About 40 percent of those sickened by the bacteria have been hospitalized. No deaths have been reported.

The Foster Farms plants implicated in the outbreak were threatened with closure last week but remained in operation this morning.

Foster Farms representatives said in a statement last week that the company was correcting plant procedures and sanitary conditions earlier deemed by the USDA as a "serious ongoing threat to public health."

"Foster Farms has instituted a number of additional food safety practices, processes and technology throughout company facilities that have already proven effective in controlling salmonella in its Pacific Northwest operations earlier this year," the company said.