As a multi-state outbreak antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg, which has sickened at least 107 people and taken one life, continues to unfold, consumer groups are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare certain strains of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella as adulterants to give the agency more teeth in preventing outbreaks and illnesses.
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Thurdsay, consumer groups call attention to a recent petition submitted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that asked USDA to use its interpretive rulemaking authority to declare four separate strains of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella — Hadar, Heidelberg, Newport, and Typhimurium — as adulterants under both the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act.
The groups point to the current Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak as prime example. Since the pathogen is not legally an adulterant, USDA cannot take action until illnesses are linked to the product. Cargill did not initiate its recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey products –which had been distributed to more than 1,000 retail stores across the country — until months after the outbreak began (in March) because illnesses were not definitively linked to their ground turkey products until the end of July.
The petition points to 36 documented outbreaks linked to antibiotic-resistant bacteria since the 1970s, 42 percent of which have occurred in the last decade.
Of the 36 outbreaks from antibiotic-resistant pathogens, 39 percent occurred in FSIS-regulated meat and poultry products, which caused nearly 1,400 illnesses, 93 hospitalizations and 5 deaths, according to the groups.
Public health surveillance data from the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) retail meat program shows that Salmonella Heidelberg and Salmonella Typhimurium have been among the most frequent serotypes identified in retail meat products, occurring in the list of the 10 most common serotypes from 2002 to 2008.
Resistant strains of Salmonella are a particularly dangerous because they are resistant to many of the drugs normally used to fight serious infections, making them difficult to treat. The current Salmonella outbreak has an unusually high hospitalization rate and public health authorities say the resistance factor is likely contributing.
“The Obama Administration has emphasized the importance of prevention in addressing food safety challenges,” reads the letter. “In order to help prevent additional outbreaks of these pathogenic strains, USDA should declare these strains of ABR Salmonella to be adulterants, test for these pathogens, and stop meat and poultry products contaminated with these strains from entering commerce. We urge you to take quick action on this important public health issue.”
The letter, which was signed by the Center for Foodborne Research & Prevention, Consumer Federation
of America, Consumers Union, Food & Water Watch, the Government
Accountability Project, National Consumers League, and STOP Foodborne
Illness is available here.