A salmonella outbreak has sickened hundreds of people in 18 states. Most monitors of food-related illness at the CDC are on furlough.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will permit Foster Farms to continue operating two poultry slaughterhouses in California that have been associated with a recent outbreak of salmonella. In a statement Thursday, the department indicated it was satisfied with the changes Foster Farms has made at its plants in Fresno and Livingston, Calif.

The department had previously threatened to shut the plants down in response to the outbreak, which has proven to be unusually dangerous:

Sampling by the USDA in September showed that raw chicken processed by those facilities included strains of salmonella that were linked to the outbreak that has sickened 278 people in 17 states.

USDA said government inspectors will monitor the company’s improvements and “continue intensified sampling” of Foster Farms meat for the next three months.

In a Monday letter to Foster Farms, USDA said the positive samples coupled with the illnesses suggest that the sanitary conditions at the facility “could pose a serious ongoing threat to public health.” The company had until Thursday to respond.

The outbreak, which has been going on since March, has had a high rate of hospitalizations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 42 percent of victims were hospitalized, about double the normal rate, and it is resistant to many antibiotics, making it more dangerous. . . .

Salmonella can contaminate meat during slaughter and processing and is especially common in raw chicken. The infections can be avoided by proper handling and cooking of raw poultry.

The pathogen causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within a few days of eating a contaminated product and can be life-threatening to those with weakened immune systems.

Associated Press

Attempts to control the outbreak come at a time when much of the federal government is closed as a result of a continuing political crisis in Washington, D.C. The CDC has been forced to recall about a dozen furloughed epidemiologists and other experts, but about 9,000 of the agency's 13,000 employees remain on furlough.