Although a single supplier has not been identified, federal officials know of a number of specific beef plants that are contaminated with a strain of Salmonella behind a deadly outbreak. But, the USDA won’t name those companies.

Seeking to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reveal the information, two members of Congress wrote to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue Friday. The legislators played a business card in addition to citing public safety concerns.

“By disclosing this data, USDA will foster market-based incentives for safer meat and poultry,” wrote U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY.

DeLauro and Gillibrand said increased transparency in the current outbreak investigation, and as a standard practice, would allow companies to decide whether they want to use a supplier based on actionable data.

The legislators said the current outbreak linked to ground beef, which has sickened people in 10 states and killed one person, is a case in point for increased transparency from the government agencies charged with food safety enforcement activities. 

They also want the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to make information available regarding specific strains of pathogens in its database.

“Data on samples collected by FSIS, generated using whole genome sequencing (WGS) technology, would allow companies, government researchers and members of the scientific community to identify links between pathogenic strains found in samples from FSIS-regulated establishments, and those found in samples from patients with confirmed cases of foodborne illness,” according to a joint statement from DeLauro and Gillibrand. 

“Those links provide actionable information for companies to reduce food safety risk. USDA has limited authority to require food safety interventions, but by sharing accurate information about what its testing reveals, the agency has had success in creating incentives for improved food safety.”

In their letter to the agriculture secretary, the representative and senator said the USDA has flawed reasoning regarding why it should withhold information.

“FSIS officials have suggested that they have not disclosed this genetic data because doing so could cause public confusion, or require public health authorities to focus their attention on misleading claims. We are not convinced that any such ill effects would outweigh the benefits of giving industry relevant, accurate, and timely information about contamination in food processing facilities, and creating market-based incentives for better food safety control,” the legislators wrote.

In addition to seeking a general shift toward the release of information, the legislators asked Perdue to provide answers on four key points in the investigation into the current ground beef outbreak and last year’s poultry-related outbreaks. They requested answers by Dec. 13 on the following:

  1. For each sample collected by FSIS that has tested positive for the outbreak strain associated with the ongoing multistate outbreak of Salmonella Dublin infections linked to ground beef, what product was sampled, when, and at which establishment?
  2. For each sample collected by FSIS that has tested positive for the outbreak strain, when and how did FSIS notify the establishment from which the positive sample was collected? If no notification has been given, why?
  3. If the outbreak strain has been found in samples from more than one establishment, what is the root cause or common source of the contamination? If still not known, how is FSIS investigating to find the root cause or common source?
  4. How many samples collected from turkey slaughter and processing establishments have tested positive for the outbreak strain associated with the multistate outbreak of antibiotic resistant Salmonella Infantis infections linked to raw chicken products? When, where, and from what products were these samples taken? Has FSIS notified the establishments producing these products? If not, why not? What is the root cause of this contamination, or if still not known, what is FSIS doing to find the root cause?

To read the entire letter, please click here.

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