York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has once again proposed a law that would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) the ability that it does not believe it already has to recall meat tainted with the pathogenic Salmonella bacteria. The law, in essence, would prompt FSIS to label Salmonella for what it really is — an adulterant that should not be on the meat on our tables. In our convoluted food safety system, FSIS generally oversees beef, chicken, pork and lamb production, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates all other manufactured food products. FDA already bans Salmonella from all food; FSIS, not at all. Salmonella is a fecal bacteria that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates sickens 1.4 million annually in the United States, hospitalizing 15,000 and killing 400. The economic loss is just as staggering. The USDA’s own Economic Research Service reports Salmonella illnesses and deaths cost $3.6 billion yearly in medical costs, wage loss and premature death. The junior senator from New York properly recognizes the long-standing dysfunction at FSIS. Despite an 18-month Salmonella outbreak during 2013 and 2014, which sickened more than 600 people — 40 percent who were hospitalized — and linked to one chicken supplier, this supposed public health agency felt powerless to close the plants or recall the chicken because, notwithstanding the illnesses linked to the chicken, FSIS presently does not consider Salmonella an adulterant, regardless of what commonsense might otherwise tell you. As long as FSIS maintains that Salmonella is not an adulterant, it will continue to claim it lacks authority to protect public safety by recalling the tainted meat and shuttering the offending plants. This is why the senator’s proposal has merit. FSIS’ decades-long position is as perplexing as it is wrong-headed — especially in light of a history of its own success with another fecal bacterial pathogen, E. coli O157:H7. In 1993, as a new president was being inaugurated, a deadly E. coli outbreak was being linked to hamburgers. Four kids were dead, dozens suffered kidney failure, and hundreds were hospitalized. Hamburger sales dropped. The beef industry was on its knees, and the public wanted answers. Haltingly at first, the Clinton administration found its backbone when FSIS Administrator Michael Taylor (now FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods) stood before the American Meat Institute and proclaimed a so-called “Zero Tolerance Rule.” The deadly E. coli bacteria would no longer be tolerated in hamburgers; it would now be considered an adulterant. At first, the beef industry balked — even litigated against the new rule — arguing that consumers should just cook the bacteria out of the meat. However, over time, industry and government found that with E. coli banned, the numbers of outbreaks and recalls linked to hamburgers fell from commonplace to infrequent. And, as a lawyer whose firm benefited from the commonplace, I was pleasantly stunned to see the flow of new clients — mainly children — slow to a trickle. It is hard to underestimate what the success that setting the E. coli bar low (with ongoing plant inspections by FSIS inspectors) has meant for consumers and the industry. All the fears of hamburger being regulated out of existence, or that the cost of production would be so high that hamburger would no longer be an American staple, never came to be. And it had the added success of fewer people sickened by E. coli-tainted hamburger, resulting in fewer lawsuits. The senator’s proposal gives us a great opportunity to learn from the hamburger/E. coli experience. We can do more to move the needle down on the 48 million sickened, 125,000 hospitalized, and 3,000 deaths per year by food, which costs our economy more than $15 billion annually. I once penned an op-ed urging action during the middle of an E. coli outbreak linked to hamburger centered in Colorado that sickened 50, killed one, and caused a half-dozen children to suffer acute kidney failure. Banking on the reality that trial lawyers are only slightly more popular than members of Congress, I suggested that something be done to “put me out of business.” As it relates to hamburger, the plea has worked. And, a few months ago, I had my first hamburger in 22 years. The senator’s proposal gives FSIS the tools it feels it needs to keep the public a bit safer. Safer food should be non-partisan. Republicans and Democrats eat and drink, and they have parents, kids, grandkids, and constituents who are some of the most vulnerable to foodborne illness. We can do something to make our food just a bit safer. The senator’s proposal is a step in the right direction.

  • heavyhanded

    Hudson Foods RIP.

  • Tom Edlind

    Presumably all agree that eliminating Salmonella from food is a good idea. But how “reasonable” this proposed law would be depends on how well it recognizes that “Salmonella” is a genus with multiple species and subspecies and >2000 serotypes, a few dozen of which are associated with most foodborne disease. Would declaring all Salmonella adulterants be like declaring all E. coli adulterants, not just O157:H7?

  • nonannystate

    I believe rather than people relying on the processors and the Government to guarantee the safety of the food they eat they would be better served, if the opportunity is available, to buy and butcher locally or as close to home as possible. I personally buy all my meat on the hoof and either butcher it myself or take it to a custom slaughterhouse that I am well acquainted with. Milk from my own animals and eggs from my own poultry. Most everything I have in my house I have made or grown or butchered. It’s the mega processing mentality that’s the major problem. Never trust someone else with things you can and should do yourself.

    • Dani Z

      I appreciate your all
      natural and “do-it-yourself” attitude. The major flaw in this
      response is that a very small percentage of people even have the option, let
      alone the ability to butcher or locate one in their vicinity. What would
      you suggest the single, working mom (or dad) do? Add another errand to
      their already endless list? The convenience of a grocery shop should not
      be the problem. Perhaps our massive consumption of meat should be
      questioned, but not where we get out meat from. How could anyone in an
      apartment complex or without land raise chickens themselves? As Dr. Katz
      pointed out, “There are over 7 billion of us Homo sapiens on the planet.
      The best estimate I could find for average land area required for sustainable
      hunter-gatherer subsistence is 32 square kilometers
      per clan of 100 humans.” We
      would need 15 times the current land mass available on Earth in order
      to accommodate your 100% free-range/ self-sustaining proposal.
      Therefore, this mass-production of food is sustaining most of the
      population. In order to maintain the majority of the population’s safety
      we really need these dedicated individuals to rally on our behalf to keep us
      out of hospitals (or worms’ digestive tracts).

      • nonannystate

        Believe me, I understand the time constraints and difficulty in being responsible for all of your own food BUT the local/slow food movement has gained tremendous ground. Small producers are the answer not greater government over-site. People are sloppy and lazy or just inept so to trust your health and well being to a faceless entity is craziness. This is were safer food lies. Know your farmer, know your produce grower, etc. The problem is that this method it is a threat to the Mega agricultural businesses and to the regulatory agencies that exist to regulate. Less regulation means less jobs which means less control which means less power. So the Government and the special interest groups do everything they can to make obtain food in this manner difficult. There are many of these local growers who are even willing to take food stamps or whatever they are called now. People just have to make the decision that this is a better way to go and pursue it.

  • The senator’s proposal is sound, but with this Congress, I don’t hold out a lot of hope.