Lawsuit Wants USDA to Act on 3-Year-Old Petition over Handling of Salmonella

Friday, May 30, 2014

The day after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its stats on the hundreds of people sickened by the yearlong Foster Farms-linked salmonella saga in California, a lawsuit (pdf) was filed to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to do something about it—or at least talk about doing something about it.

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.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack apologized (pdf) to CSPI in July 2013 for not responding to the petition, implied that his hands were tied and has done nothing since. 

“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.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Lawsuit Seeks to End USDA Inaction on Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (Center For Science in the Public Interest)

Lawsuit Seeks USDA Response to Salmonella as Adulterant Petition (by Lydia Zuraw, Food Safety News)

USDA Sued by Advocacy Group over Handling of Salmonella in Meat (by David Pierson, Los Angeles Times)

Year-Long Salmonella Outbreak Still Going Strong without a Foster Farms Recall (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Fight Over Salmonella and Adulterants Spills Into the Chicken Coop (by James Andrews, Food Safety News)

Center for Science in the Public Interest v. U.S. Department of Agriculture et al (U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia) (pdf)

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