ST. LOUIS — A scientist, a retiree and a lawyer walk into a seminar room.
There’s no punchline. They’re no joke. They came to talk Salmonella and they are deadly serious.
The three-part session Monday afternoon at the annual conference of the International Association for Food Protection was headlined with a question in the program book: “Is Salmonella an adulterant in raw meat and poultry?”
Considering there is virtually no one arguing the point that Salmonella is present in raw meat and poultry, and it is well documented that Salmonella can make people sick, sometimes resulting in death, one might expect the answer to the session’s headline question to be a resounding: “Yes.”
Explaining why the answer is actually “no” fell to the lawyer on stage, Denis Stearns, a founding member of the Marler Clark law firm in Seattle that is known for its work representing victims of foodborne illnesses.
“Legal decisions are made based on information lawyers bring onto a specific courtroom for a specific case at a specific time,” Stearns said, explaining that specificity is sometimes misunderstood by some people.
Stearns said the significance of specificity as it relates to Salmonella and its official status as an adulterant or non-adulterant centers on the case of Supreme Beef Processors Inc. v. the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bottom line of the case that many people miss, Stearns said, is that USDA only lost on one front when a federal appeals court in 2001 upheld a lower court’s ruling in favor of the beef company.
The courts said USDA couldn’t shut down a meat-processing plant that repeatedly failed tests for Salmonella contamination at its facility. That’s why many people believe that Salmonella cannot be considered an adulterant, Stearns said.
However, USDA only argued the point under one section of the federal Meat Inspection Act. Stearns contends there is still room for a legal challenge under another section of the law.
Consequently, the answer to the session’s headline question about whether Salmonella is an adulterant in raw meat and poultry is actually “maybe.”
All agree Salmonella is serious
Addressing sub-questions about “Salmonellosis, Consumer Expertise and Regulatory Policy” in his presentation, retiree Carl Custer explained the medical history of Salmonella infections and outbreaks and the federal government’s decades-long failed consumer education campaign “Just Cook It.”
Custer’s perspective is informed by more than 34 years as a bench and desk scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. He retired from USDA in 2007 and is now a consultant.
He said it is clear that consumer education will never be enough to dramatically reduce the number of people annually sickened by Salmonella, which is the second-leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. Custer said industry needs an incentive.
“Why not adopt a rule for Salmonella and STEC (Shiga toxin-producing E. coli) as we have for antibiotic residues,” Custer suggested, explaining that producers have to pay for every individual animal that has unacceptable levels.
“That would give an economic incentive to producers to develop controls and be proactive,” he said.
Rounding out the trio of Salmonella presenters and putting a human face on the question about its status, graduate student Rachel Miller from Cornell University discussed the school’s research into the pathogen.
“Not all Salmonella are created equal,” was Miller’s point, and she drove it home again and again.
She cited studies and statistics showing that roughly 16 out of every 100,000 people in the U.S. are infected by Salmonella every year, with about 400 deaths attributed to the pathogen.
There are more than 2,600 individual serotypes of Salmonella, and they are all pretty good at hiding from the human immune system and confusing it when they can’t.
Miller said it is well documented that Salmonella is present in raw meat and poultry and that about 5 percent of people who are sickened by it develop a blood infection that can be fatal or cause lifelong medical problems.
Editor’s note: Bill Marler of the Marler Clark law firm is publisher of Food Safety News.
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