USDA Urged to Prohibit Antibiotic-Resistant Salmonella in Ground Meat and Poultry

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Dangerous Strains Make Foodborne Illnesses Harder to Treat, Says CSPI

Ground meat and poultry found to contain antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella should be recalled from the marketplace or withheld from commerce, according to a regulatory petition filed today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The nonprofit food safety watchdog group wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare four such Salmonella strains as “adulterants” under federal law, making products that contain them illegal to sell.

CSPI is also urging testing for antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in ground meat and poultry, citing a number of major outbreaks of foodborne illnesses linked to the four strains. Those illnesses are harder for physicians to treat, resulting in longer hospitalizations and increased mortality, according to the group.

“The only thing worse than getting sick from food is being told that no drugs exist to treat your illness,” said CSPI food safety staff attorney Sarah Klein. “And that’s what more consumers will hear if these drug-resistant pathogens keep getting into our meat.”

USDA already recalls products contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella—but only after those products have made people sick, according to CSPI. The group’s petition asks the agency to establish a testing regime for these pathogens in ground meat and poultry in the same way that it has for E. coli O157:H7. USDA declared that particularly dangerous strain of E. coli an adulterant in 1994.

“USDA should take action before people get sick, and require controls and testing for these pathogens before they reach consumers,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “The research shows that antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in ground meat and poultry is a hazard and its time to move to a more preventive system of controlling the risks at the plant and on the farm.”

The four Salmonella strains covered by the petition, Salmonella Heidelberg, Salmonella Newport, Salmonella Hadar, and Salmonella Typhimurium, have all been linked to outbreaks.

In 2009, an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Newport linked to Cargill beef resulted in at least 40 illnesses in four states. And this year, the USDA oversaw a recall of frozen turkey burgers contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Hadar. That outbreak sickened at least 12. But because foodborne illness is dramatically underreported the true number of illnesses is likely much higher.

“Physicians and patients are now facing pathogens that are virtually untreatable,” said Dr. Stephen A. Lerner, a professor of medicine specializing in infectious disease at Wayne State University School of Medicine. “This petition would reduce human exposure to some dangerous drug-resistant Salmonella, which is crucial because our critically-important antibiotics are losing effectiveness and they aren’t being replaced by new ones. We must do all that we can to reduce antibiotic-resistant infections from food.”

The danger of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in the food supply is well-documented and has been recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and by USDA itself. Those agencies are working together to address the issue and recently produced a document stating that “drug resistant pathogens are a growing menace to all people,” and that “drug resistance threatens to reverse the medical advances of the last half century.”

Antibiotic resistance is an inevitable consequence of antibiotic overuse, according to CSPI. Most antibiotics used on animal farms are not used to treat disease, but to promote growth or to prevent diseases caused by overcrowding, poor hygiene, and other problems.

CSPI has long urged the FDA to stop the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. In fact, CSPI is a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit filed today by the Natural Resources Defense Council aimed at compelling the FDA to withdraw its approval for most non-therapeutic uses of two important antibiotics, penicillin and tetracyclines, in animal feed.

Improving conditions on factory farms, thereby reducing both the need for antibiotic use and the resulting resistance, is a primary tenet of Food Day—a new grassroots mobilization CSPI is planning for October 24. Reducing overcrowding in hen houses and concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, could lead to more judicious use of antibiotics and would be beneficial for animal and human health, according to the group.