Five years after U.S. representatives wrote to the USDA about the agency’s “unacceptable” response to Salmonella outbreaks traced to chicken, one of the lawmakers says déjà vu is not acceptable as a food safety policy.  

Federal health officials announced yesterday that 92 people are confirmed infected in a new outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Infantis traced to raw chicken. A few hours later, Rep. Rosa DeLauro D-CT, issued a statement telling industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Congress that it’s past time to act.

“Five years ago to the day, I wrote a letter with my former colleague, the late Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, to CDC and USDA regarding their mismanaged investigation and lack of action in response to an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella that contaminated chicken products across the country. 634 were infected across 29 states,” DeLauro said in her statement. 

“Now, five years later, CDC has informed the public of another outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in chicken that has been going on since January. It has already affected 92 people, 21 of which have been hospitalized. That is completely unacceptable.

Rosa DeLauro

“The federal government and the poultry industry need to take this problem seriously. Déjà vu is not an acceptable policy for dealing with food safety. We need to be proactive. People’s lives are on the line.”

DeLauro urged her fellow members of  Congress to approve the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would ban the use of medically important antibiotics in food animal production unless they are needed to treat actual livestock illnesses. 

“The overuse of antibiotics in the livestock sector only makes this problem worse, and it is long past time we deal with the problem head-on, instead of going through the same issues over and over again,” DeLauro said.

The Connecticut Democrat is chair of the Congressional Food Safety Caucus and the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee that is responsible for funding the CDC. She is a senior Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittees responsible for funding USDA and FDA.

Earlier this year, DeLauro assumed sponsorship of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which Congresswoman Louise Slaughter championed during her time in Congress.

On Oct. 17, 2013, when DeLauro and Slaughter wrote to the CDC and USDA, they cited two Salmonella outbreaks associated with chicken from Foster Farms. In a joint statement issued five years ago, the two U.S. Representatives described the situation as tragic and said the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection service had failed the American public:

“Over 400 people have been sickened since 2012 by Foster Farms chicken that has been linked to the outbreak.

“In separate letters to the CDC and Food Safety and Inspection Service, part of USDA, (we) expressed deep concern with the investigation into the outbreak and lack of action in response to prevent contaminated Foster Farms products from entering the marketplace.

“We are particularly troubled that there was an investigation into an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg that identified Foster Farms brand chicken as the most likely source of an outbreak beginning in 2012, but no action was taken and, tragically, a second outbreak occurred this year…

“An outbreak of foodborne illness on the scale of that reported by the CDC in July (2013) is undoubtedly disconcerting to the American public. A second outbreak emanating from the same company is wholly unacceptable. It is FSIS’s core mission to prevent such outbreaks, as well as quickly and adequately respond to such incidents when they do occur, a regulatory responsibility that FSIS appears to have failed to meet in this case.”

The current outbreak investigation
As of Oct. 17, there were 92 people with confirmed Salmonella Infantis infections traced to raw chicken from multiple sources and sold under various brands. No recalls have been initiated.

To view a larger version of this chart, please click on the image.

The people with confirmed infections are spread across 29 states, according to an investigation announcement posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The patients range in age from less than 1 year old to 105 years old. Of those with information available, a third have required hospitalization. 

No deaths have been reported. Confirmed patients have illness onset dates beginning Jan. 18 and running through Sept. 9. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is working with the CDC on the outbreak investigation.

Federal officials have contacted leaders in the chicken industry regarding steps they can take to reduce Salmonella contamination. Further investigation and interventions to reduce the prevalence of this strain should target both the live chicken industry and chicken processing facilities, according to the CDC. 

Additional illnesses are expected to be confirmed partly because of the widespread Salmonella contamination at chicken farms and processing operations. Also, it can take several weeks to confirm and report illnesses after a person develops symptoms of salmonellosis.

“Of 54 people interviewed, 48 — 89 percent — people interviewed reported preparing or eating chicken products that were purchased raw, including ground chicken, chicken pieces, and whole chicken,” according to the CDC report. “Ill people reported buying many different brands of raw chicken products from multiple stores. Also, one person got sick after pets in their home ate raw ground chicken pet food. Another ill person lived with someone who works in a facility that raises or processes chickens.

“The outbreak strain of Salmonella Infantis has been identified in samples from raw chicken pet food, from raw chicken products from 58 slaughter and/or processing establishments, and from live chickens. Samples collected at slaughter and processing establishments were collected as part of FSIS’s routine testing under the Salmonella performance standards.”  

Whole genome sequencing of Salmonella isolates found in 43 of the patients and 68 food and environmental samples predicted the bacterial infections are resistant to multiple antibiotic traditionally used. The CDC is providing special advice to medical practitioners about treatment alternatives.

There are at least 13 antibiotics on the CDC list of drugs the outbreak strains are resistant to, including ampicillin, ciprofloxacin, streptomycin and tetracycline. Other antibiotics on the list are:

  • ceftriaxone, 
  • chloramphenicol, 
  • fosfomycin, 
  • gentamicin, 
  • hygromycin, 
  • kanamycin, 
  • nalidixic acid, 
  • sulfamethoxazole, and 
  • trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole.

Advice to consumers
Anyone who has handled or prepared raw chicken and developed symptoms of Salmonella infection should seek medical attention and tell their doctor about the possible exposure to the bacteria. Special lab tests that are not routinely done are required to diagnose salmonellosis.

Symptoms usually begin 12 to 72 hours after exposure. Symptoms can include diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. In otherwise healthy adults, the illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and many recover without treatment.

However, the diarrhea may be so severe that patients need to be hospitalized. Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the bloodstream and then to other places in the body. In extreme cases, Salmonella infection can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics.

“Children younger than 5 years of age, adults older than 65 years of age, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have severe illness,” according to the CDC.

Public health officials and food safety experts in the United States and around the world advise against washing raw poultry during preparation. This poster is from the UK’s Food Standards Agency.

The CDC’s notice reminds consumers to practice food safety steps when handling and preparing raw chicken. It is very easy to contaminate counters, utensils and hands, spreading bacteria and other pathogens.

“Thoroughly wash hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils with warm, soapy water after they touch raw chicken. Use a separate cutting board for raw chicken and other raw meats if possible,” the CDC recommends.

“CDC does not recommend feeding raw diets to pets. Germs like Salmonella in raw pet food can make your pets sick. Your family also can get sick by handling the raw food or by taking care of your pet.”

Raw poultry is known to harbor pathogens and requires. It should always be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F at its thickest part. For additional food safety tips, visit Leftovers should be reheated to 165 degrees F.

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