Petition seeks to classify all salmonella strains as meat adulterants
By Julie Larson Bricher on 1/23/2020

Seattle-based law firm Marler Clark LLP filed a petition Jan. 19 with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) urging the agency to declare 31 salmonella outbreak serotypes as adulterants in meat and poultry products.

The 60-page petition details current scientific and medical research to show that “the health hazards posed by outbreak serotypes of Salmonella enterica subsp. are undeniable.” It cites CDC estimates that salmonella causes 1.35 million illnesses, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths annually in the U.S.

The petition asks FSIS to issue an interpretive rule declaring salmonella outbreak serotypes adulterants within the meanings of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act.

Attorney Bill Marler, who petitioned FSIS in the early 1990s to declare E. coli as an adulterant following the Jack in the Box outbreak, said that as with E. coli, there is ample evidence over the past 25 years that salmonella makes people sick. (Note:  Actually, FSIS declared E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant in hamburger in 1994.  I petitioned to add O26, O45, 0103, O111, O121, and O145 in 2009).

“Intellectually, there’s little justification to say that E. coli O157:H7 and the Shiga-toxin producing E. coli [serotypes] are adulterants but salmonella is not,” Marler told Meatingplace in an interview. “The question is, what are we going to do about it?”

“There are a lot of things that the industry and government can do to combat this [pathogen]. And I’m a firm believer in, if we can put people on the moon and we can build the Panama Canal, we can figure out how to get chicken shit out of chicken,” he added.

The bottom line, Marler told Meatingplace, is that “even though it seems like we’re asking for a lot, it’s really based in science and on the fact that these strains have caused human illnesses and deaths over the last 25 years.”

Marler says that the law requires that FSIS either accept or deny a petition before the petitioner can take the case to federal court. For example, Marler Clark’s 1994 petition to expand the definition of adulterant to include Shiga toxin-producing E. coli other than O157:H7 languished in decision purgatory at the agency for more than two years, until the attorney pressed for an answer within a six-month period.

“I finally just said, ‘Hey, look, if you don’t deny it or approve it within six months, I’m just going to take it that you’ve denied it, and I’m going to sue you,” Marler recounts. “During that period they made the decision to expand the definition of adulterant for E. coli without actually approving my petition.”

Still, Marler is hopeful that FSIS will act more quickly this time around.

“I don’t think [FSIS] will just come out and deny it. It’s more problematic for them to get into federal court than to try to find a compromise or deal. We will just have to see what FSIS’s approach is going to be. We’re obviously prepared, but prepared either way,” Marler said. “Prepared to work with them, prepared to sue them. It’s completely up to the agency.”

The legal firm filed the petition on behalf of Rick Schiller, Steven Romes, the Porter Family, Food & Water Watch, Consumer Federation of American and Consumer Reports. The two individuals and one family named as petitioners were sickened by and experience ongoing health issues as a result of contracting salmonellosis from consuming meat products.