The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit advocacy group, asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to make the USDA respond to its three-year old regulatory petition to “treat antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella as adulterants in order to prevent the sale and distribution of tainted meat.”
Right now, the government doesn’t have the power to insist on a recall of salmonella-tainted food, like the chicken that has made 574 people ill in 27 states and Puerto Rico since March 1, 2013. The CSPI names four strains of antibiotic-resistant salmonella, including the Heidelberg strain associated with the Foster Farms outbreak, that the USDA ought to be policing, not just tracking.
The group wants the agency to treat salmonella the way it treats e.coli. It took a deadly e.coli outbreak in the 1990s, linked to Jack-in-the-Box ground meat, for the government to order that it be eradicated in the food plants and recalled if it showed up on people’s plates. Salmonella, on the other hand, is tolerated as an annoyance that can be avoided if food is properly prepared and cooked in the kitchen.
The lawsuit seeks to make the USDA proactive on salmonella, or at least go through the steps required by law to consider the formal petition in 2011 that it be proactive. Right now, recalls are voluntary and Foster Farms has declined the honor while reports of illness continue—50 in the last two months.
“USDA takes action only after people start becoming ill from these life-threatening antibiotic-resistant superbugs,” CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal said upon filing of the lawsuit.
If the USDA declared the salmonella strains to be adulterants in raw food, the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) would be empowered to treat it like e.coli.
The Foster Farms outbreak is the second one since 2012 linked to the company. An earlier outbreak was blamed for 134 sick people, although the numbers of afflicted are generally regarded as being far lower than the actual number of victims.