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Lawsuit Seeks USDA Response to Salmonella as Adulterant Petition

On the third anniversary of filing a petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to have antibiotic-resistant Salmonella declared an adulterant, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is still waiting for a response.

On Wednesday, the consumer advocate group filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asking the court to require USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to respond to its petition targeting Salmonella Heidelberg, Newport, Hadar and Typhimurium strains.

The group’s complaint states that “more than three years after CSPI’s petition, FSIS has neither granted nor denied the petition, and it has taken no action to declare ABR Salmonella an adulterant. Therefore, to protect public safety and prevent needless death and injury, CSPI seeks a declaration that defendants have acted unlawfully by withholding action on CSPI’s petition and an order requiring defendants to act thereon.”

“We ask the agency almost every month about the status of the petition, and there is no sign that it’s progressing,” said CSPI Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “We’ve had multiple outbreaks from antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella targeted by the petition since we filed it. Evidence that antibiotic-resistant Salmonella poses a very real threat to consumers has only grown stronger.”

The original petition was based on evidence at the time that ground product posed the greatest risk for contamination. Since then, the first of two outbreaks linked to chicken from Foster Farms has prompted CSPI to urge USDA to also monitor poultry parts and whole poultry for antibiotic-resistant strains.

The lawsuit was filed the day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an updated case count in the ongoing Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak linked to chicken parts from Foster Farms. As of May 22, 574 people in 27 states and Puerto Rico have been sickened with the multi-drug-resistant pathogen.

“I think Foster Farms clearly illustrates that the agency has to address this issue of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella,” DeWaal said. “If antibiotic-resistant Salmonella is declared an adulterant, the very fact that the products could be recalled would force companies to go back and look at practices on the farm that might be causing the selection for these strains of Salmonella.”

In December 2013, Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety Brian Ronholm wrote to U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) to answer their questions regarding the Foster Farms outbreaks.

“FSIS has received and is reviewing a petition to consider four strains of Salmonella as adulterants in raw product,” Ronholm wrote. “Meanwhile, in December 2012, FSIS took substantive steps in which the Agency published its considerations for when, in case-by-case situations, FSIS would consider raw meat or poultry products to be adulterated.”

During a House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in April, Ronholm said that the agency’s Salmonella action plan is a “blueprint to express our frustration” with the prevalence of the pathogen industry-wide. He added that FSIS is “happy to have a conversation” about mandatory recall authority, but will use the tools it does have in the meantime.

When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee in March, he said that court decisions indicate that the agency does not have the authority to declare antibiotic-resistant Salmonella an adulterant.

“Ask us for the authority,” DeLauro countered.

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