"The outbreak is continuing," and is linked to a California company, USDA says.

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An estimated 278 people in 18 states have been sickened in a salmonella outbreak linked to chicken produced in California, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday.

"The outbreak is continuing," the USDA says in apublic health alert naming three facilities operated by Foster Farms as the likely source of raw chicken contaminated with a strain of bacteria known as salmonella Heidelberg. Most of the chicken has been sold in California, Oregon and Washington, and most of the illnesses have occurred in California, USDA says.

But no recall has been announced and the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service "is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period," the news release says. Consumers can identify products that came from the three plants by looking for these packaging codes: P6137; P6137A and P7632.

In its own press release, Foster Farms says it is working with USDA inspectors and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address the outbreak. The company's food safety chief, Robert O'Connor, says the USDA inspection process has not been affected by the federal government shutdown.

However, CDC disease detectives who specialize in tracking multistate food-borne outbreaks are not on the job and that could affect the investigation, Wired reports.

Common symptoms of salmonella food poisoning include diarrhea, cramps and fever that typically start 8 to 72 hours after eating food with high levels of the bacteria. Some people also get chills, nausea and vomiting, lasting up to seven days, USDA says. For people with weak immune systems, including infants and the elderly, the infection can be deadly.

All poultry products should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 to kill disease-carrying pathogens, USDA said. A food thermometer is the only way to insure that the proper temperature is reached.

Consumers shouldn't rely on cooking instructions that give a specific number of minutes of cooking for each side of chicken because the actual time may vary depending on whether the chicken is being broiled, fried or grilled and whether it was chilled or frozen when cooking began, the Food Safety Inspection Service said in a release.

An outbreak of the same strain of salmonella was linked to Foster Farms chicken in 2012 in Oregon and Washington. That outbreak sickened 134 people in 13 states,CDC reported in July.

In a statement on its website the company said it 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."

Salmonella is known to contaminate poultry flocks in the United States. "Salmonella is naturally occurring in poultry and can be fully eradicated if raw product is properly handled and fully cooked," said the company's food safety chief Robert O'Connor.

Several European countries have succeeded in eradicated it in their flocks through stringent controls but those controls are considered too costly to implement in the United States.

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