During the past half century the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual reports show that salmonellosis has been the leading cause of foodborne death. Salmonellosis is caused by virulent serotypes of the bacterium Salmonella enterica. The sources include undercooked meat or poultry, cross contamination from raw meat or poultry, and poorly washed produce. The species varies in its virulence to humans and animals. Some serotypes are pathogenic to animals but less so to humans. Other serotypes are pathogenic to humans but not to animals, which become asymptomatic carriers.
Public health issues with asymptomatic carriers include:
1. The pathogens are undetectable during slaughter processing as is the non-visible fecal contamination;
2. Ordinary slaughter and dressing processing steps do not eliminate the pathogens from the product, they are in the non-detectible fecal contamination embedded in the follicles;
3. There is a tolerance for their presence based on surveys; thus,
4. The production facilities have no incentive to eliminate the pathogen which leads to environmental contamination, including produce.
On Jan. 19, 2020, attorney Bill Marler and others petitioned the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to declare the outbreak serotypes of Salmonella as adulterants. FSIS received 377 comments on the petition. Marler addressed those comments in a follow up supplement to the petition. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also petitioned FSIS in January 2021 to “Establish Enforceable Standards Targeting Salmonella Types of Greatest Public Health Concern while Reducing all Salmonella and Campylobacter in Poultry, and to Require Supply Chain Controls.”
FSIS has taken no action. FSIS has written that it will respond after it has thoroughly evaluated the issues raised, as well as the comments submitted on the petitions and any supplement information. That is 16 months since the comments closed. In the meantime salmonellosis continues to sicken and kill people.
In an Oct. 29, 2021, article, ProPublica wrote, “Today, food poisoning sickens roughly 1 in 6 Americans every year, according to the CDC, and salmonella hospitalizes and kills more people than any other foodborne pathogen. Each year, about 1.35 million people get sick from Salmonella. While most recover, more than 400 people die and 26,500 people are hospitalized. Some are left with long-term conditions like severe arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome. Salmonella costs the economy an estimated $4. 1 billion a year, more than any other type of food poisoning.” https://www.propublica. org/article/salmonella-chicken-usda-food-safety
FSIS doesn’t lack for scientific expertise. There are numerous scientists, including chemists, staticians, and microbiologists. Additionally, there is a working relationship with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). What the scientists seem to lack is effective communication and influence over the non-science managers. All managers are members of the Senior Executive Service and former members have described the political pressure they experienced. Kudos to the lawyers who have listened to the scientists, not the lobbyists, and implemented food safety reforms.
There is a cartoon by Julian Bilicki with a sign “SCIENCE IS IMPORTANT” but the sign has been amended to read “SCIENCE IS IMPO-TeNT” by a pencil labeled, “LOBBYISTS.”
A non-science FSIS Assistant Administrator recently responded that the Marler and CSPI petitions with their “new approaches” will be considered by the recently announced “plans to explore possible new approaches for addressing Salmonella in poultry.” Those petitions are not “new approaches” but based on decades of established science and previous FSIS actions. For example, after a serotype of Escherichia coli (E. coli) caused meat-borne outbreaks, FSIS declared that serotype, E. coli O157:H7, an adulterant. In response to additional illnesses, FSIS has added other serotypes of E. coli. It’s law based on science.
Decades ago, I congratulated a friend, a veterinarian, who had just finished Senior Executive Service training. I chided him by asking if part of the training was pithing his brain. He laughed and responded, “No, but they made us more politically aware.”
Salmonellosis is a serious food safety disease. The science in the petitions is solid. Outbreak serotypes are ordinarily injurious in the hands of ordinary citizens. It is long past time for FSIS managers to be less politically aware and more sensitive to the science and the legal requirement for food safety in the Food Safety Inspection Service.
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