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Outbreaks of Antibiotic-Resistant Salmonella Require Urgent USDA Action, Says CSPI

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare four antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella as adulterants under federal law. In a petition filed with the agency CSPI says antibiotic-resistant strains on meat and poultry were linked to at least 2,358 illnesses, 424 hospitalizations, and eight deaths—facts that CSPI says obligates USDA to keep those strains out of the food supply.

In July, USDA denied without prejudice a 2011 CSPI petition asking the agency to declare antibiotic-resistant Salmonella strains that caused illnesses as adulterants in ground meat and poultry. The new petition is asking for expanded relief by covering all meat and poultry products, not just ground products. Since CSPI's 2011 petition, two multi-state outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg linked to non-ground chicken products from Foster Farms have sickened 750 consumers and hospitalized 233. In the second of those outbreaks, USDA allowed contaminated products to remain on the market for nearly 10 months as the number of those sickened doubled. CSPI says that USDA, which had initiated recalls in some but not other outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella, uses its authority in an arbitrary and inconsistent way—putting consumers at risk.

In 1994, USDA declared E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant after it sickened more than 700 consumers and caused three deaths from undercooked hamburgers. The agency acted again in 2011 when it declared six strains of shiga-toxin-producing E. coli to be adulterants, though those strains weren't linked to a single outbreak in the United States from meat or poultry products. CSPI is also asking USDA to institute a sampling and testing program to detect the presence of the Heidelberg, Typhimurium, Newport, and Hadar strains of antibiotic-resistantSalmonella. Declaring strains of Salmonella to be an adulterant means that USDA could get tainted meat and poultry products out of the marketplace before they were linked to illnesses.

"The Foster Farms outbreaks should have served as a wake-up call to USDA, but the agency keeps hitting the snooze button," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "USDA should be testing for antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella to keep contaminated foods out of grocery stores—just as it now can do for the most dangerous strains of E. coli. Antibiotic-resistant Salmonella is no less dangerous and kills twice as many Americans each year."

The fact that USDA has initiated numerous recalls in outbreaks involving antibiotic-resistant Salmonella is further proof that the agency knows that the strains are adulterants capable of causing injury, according to the petition.

One reason USDA said it denied CSPI's 2011 petition was that ordinary cooking is sufficient to kill Salmonella. But CSPI said USDA failed to provide any scientific support for that assertion, and pointed to a number of studies indicating that consumers' cooking, handling, and cleaning practices do not adequately control the hazard at home. USDA considers E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant in beef in part because it acknowledges some consumers' preference for rare, medium rare, or medium beef. The agency's response to CSPI's petition said that USDA was "not aware of any data to suggest that consumers consider ground poultry, ground pork, or ground lamb to be properly cooked when rare, medium-rare, or medium." But CSPI's new petition provides USDA with examples of recipes for pork, lamb, and chicken recipes from the New York Times, the Food Network, Epicurious, and other sources with cooking times indicative of rare or medium-rare temperatures.

"The number of illnesses and hospitalizations alone shows that USDA's confidence in Americans to control antibiotic-resistant Salmonella with proper cooking is misplaced," DeWaal said. "The key is to reduce consumer exposure by keeping these strains out of the meat and poultry products altogether."

USDA's denial of CSPI's 2011 petition came after the group filed a federal lawsuit against the agency for its failure to respond.

On September 18, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report to the President on combating antibiotic resistance, and the White House issued an executive order creating a task force charged with developing a strategy for combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. CSPI criticized the Council committee for not urging more effective action to limit antibiotic use in animal production—a major contributor to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat and poultry.

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).