It is time for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) to fulfill its public health mission and get antibiotic-resistant Salmonella out of the American meat supply.
In May 2011, as the number of illnesses were mounting without public knowledge in the recent Cargill ground turkey Salmonella Heildelberg outbreak and recall, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed a regulatory petition asking the USDA to declare antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg, Salmonella Newport, Salmonella Hadar, and Salmonella Typhimurium “adulterants” under federal law, making products that contain them illegal to sell.
“We’ve had many calls from concerned people, many of them victims in this Cargill Salmonella outbreak, who are wondering how this type of pathogen got in their food,” said William Marler, whose firm Marler Clark has been retained by a number of ground turkey Salmonella outbreak victims. “It’s a real shock for them to hear that the government doesn’t currently ban this sort of bug.”
USDA already recalls products contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella—but only after those products have made people sick, according to CSPI. The group’s petition asks the agency to establish a testing regime for these pathogens in ground meat and poultry in the same way that it has for E. coli O157:H7. USDA declared that particularly dangerous strain of E. coli an adulterant in 1994.
“USDA should take action before people get sick, and require controls and testing for these pathogens before they reach consumers,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “The research shows that antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in ground meat and poultry is a hazard and it’s time to move to a more preventive system of controlling the risks at the plant and on the farm.”
In 2009, an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Newport linked to Cargill beef resulted in at least 40 illnesses in four states. And this year, the USDA oversaw a recall of frozen turkey burgers contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Hadar.
The danger of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in the food supply is well-documented and has been recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and by USDA itself. Those agencies are working together to address the issue and recently produced a document stating that “drug resistant pathogens are a growing menace to all people,” and that “drug resistance threatens to reverse the medical advances of the last half century.”
In 2009, Marler Clark petitioned FSIS to declare all Shiga toxin-producing strains of E. coli adulterants. “It’s time the USDA put public health first,” said Marler. “It is shameful that after so many outbreaks – so many hospitalizations and deaths– that the agency responsible for ensuring our food is safe still drags its feet time and time again on public health.”