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Foster Farms Outbreak Brings Antibiotic-Resistant Salmonella Petition to the Fore

The outbreak of Salmonella linked to Foster Farms chicken products has some consumer advocates talking again about a petition filed in 2011 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare antibiotic-resistant Salmonella an adulterant. Doing so would allow the agency to recall meat based simply on tests.

“If tests showed that the meat tested positive for antibiotic-resistant Salmonella, that would be enough to trigger a recall,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI’s director of the food safety program. “Right now, they’re saying they can’t recall the Foster Farms products because they don’t have specific evidence linking an individual who got sick to a package that contains both a lot number and date information that would allow them to track it back to a specific product coming back to the plant.”

This lack of information, she added, could be “totally overcome if they acted on our petition.”

Antibiotic resistance is a growing concern with all foodborne pathogens. While Salmonella outbreaks usually cause a 20-percent hospitalization rate, the Foster Farms outbreak has hospitalized 42 percent of its 317 victims due to antibiotic resistance.

“We’re asking for a declaration that the department consider these pathogens, which make people sick and cause more severe illnesses than your standard Salmonella, be treated as adulterants and subject to the same recall policies as E. coli O15:H7.”

USDA has yet to act on the petition even though a number of consumer groups has expressed support. In May 2013, 14 organizations, including the Center for Food Safety, Consumer Federation of America, Food and Water Watch, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and STOP Foodborne Illness, wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to mark the two-year anniversary of the filing and urge the agency to act.

“The USDA currently recalls products contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella only after illnesses or hospitalizations, and possibly deaths, have occurred,” the groups wrote. “That reactionary approach continues to put consumers at undue risk from illnesses that are more complicated to treat, due to ineffective antibiotics; treatment failure increases the risk of death.”

“Outbreaks like this are tragic reminders that the government just can’t wait to act on urgent public health issues,” DeWaal said. “The fact that USDA has not acted on our petition in two-and-a-half years is just inviting more outbreaks like this and the agency is left with an inability to respond effectively to a consumer health threat.”

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