Four outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella — the most ever in a single year — were 2011’s 3rd most important food safety story.

Since April, Salmonella Hadar, Salmonella Heidelberg and Salmonella Typhimurium infections have left a trail of victims who cannot be successfully treated with common antibiotics.

The sudden frequency of these antibiotic-resistant Salmonella outbreaks in 2011 is sounding alarm bells on several fronts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not ban Salmonella in meat and poultry. But when an antibiotic-resistant Salmonella strain is found in meat linked to an illness, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) treats it like a banned substance.

That’s why outbreaks of illness traced to contaminated ground turkey, chicken livers, and ground beef led to recalls in 2011. 

After one of those recalls, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called upon USDA to change its current policy and not wait for people to be sickened before asking producers to recall meat tainted with four antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella.

CSPI in May formally petitioned USDA to declare those four Salmonella strains — Heidelberg, Newport, Hadar and Typhimurium —  as “adulterants” under federal law, making it illegal to sell products containing them.

USDA still has the petition “under consideration” as 2011 draws to a close.

“The only thing worse than getting sick from food is being told that no drugs exist to treat your illnesses,” said CSPI attorney Sarah Klein, who filed the petition.  “And that is what more consumers will hear if these drug-resistant pathogens keep getting into our meat.”

And did they ever get into our meat in 2011.

In April, Jennie-O Turkey, which ran a massive television campaign promoting turkey burgers during 2011, was forced to recall 54,900 pounds of ground turkey contaminated with Salmonella Hadar.

The recall was associated with a 10-state Salmonella Hadar outbreak that left 12 people infected and sent three to hospitals. Later in the year, Jennie-O Turkey television advertisements included a brief caution about the need to thoroughly cook turkey burgers.

In August, Cargill Meat Solutions called back 36 million pounds of ground turkey from its Arkansas facility after a massive Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak infected 136 people in 34 states. There was one fatality. Cargill’s voluntarily closed its Springdale, AR turkey plant and did not get it up and running again until Dec. 19.

About 40 percent of those with the Heidelberg infections required hospitalization, and in many of those cases fighting the infections proved difficult.

“The isolates from the ground turkey samples were resistant to antibiotics including ampicillin, streptomycin, tetracycline, and gentamicin, ” according to the CDC. “The sensitivity testing results indicated that isolates from humans were also resistant to ampicillin and tetracycline, and some were resistant to streptomycin and gentamicin. 

“All human isolates were sensitive to several common antibiotics used in clinical practice such as ciprofloxacin, ceftriaxone, and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole. Antimicrobial resistance may increase the risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals.”

The “treatment failure” option is what has public health officials concerned about antibiotic-resistant Salmonella.

Two more outbreaks added to the toll in 2011.  Chicken livers contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg infected at least 179 people in a half dozen states.  Schreiber Processing Corp. recalled “Kosher broiled chicken livers” implicated in the outbreak.

In December, fresh ground beef from a Maine grocery store chain was recalled for Salmonella Typhimurium contamination. At least 16 people were infected and at least seven were hospitalized.

The government has long been looking for ways to fight back against the bacteria.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at year-end appeared to be backing off the long-held theory that low doses of antibiotics used in animal feed to spur grow is part of the problem.  In a Dec. 22  filing, FDA withdrew its 1977 proposal for withdrawing approval for such routine use of penicillin and tetracycline in food-producing animals.

FDA may have been reacting to a Government Accountability Office of Congress report from earlier in 2011 that said there is not even sufficient data to study a link between antibiotic uses in food animals to antibiotic uses in humans.

One thing that is for certain — 2011’s 3rd most important story is not going away anytime soon.