Salmonella Outbreak Spurs Call for More Action


December 19, 2013

A national outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella that has been ongoing since October has sickened more than 389 people in 23 states and is hospitalizing them at double the rate expected.

In light of that, and recent tests finding high levels of salmonella in raw chicken nationally, a report today by the Pew Charitable Trusts says that current policies don't protect public health.

The outbreak is linked to Foster Farms brand chicken. The seven strains of salmonella Heidelberg involved in the outbreak appear to be especially virulent. Forty percent of those who fell ill have been hospitalized, compared with the usual 20% hospitalization rate with salmonella. A previous outbreak in 13 states that sickened 134 people with the same type of salmonella in 2012 was also linked to Foster Farms.

Consumer Reports magazine also released a report today in which it found that 10.8% of the 316 raw chicken breasts the magazine tested from various companies were contaminated with salmonella. Of those, 79% were resistant to at least one antibiotic. The chicken was purchased at retail nationwide.

The National Chicken Council, an industry group, noted that those 316 samples represented four-thousandths of 1% of the 42 million pounds of fresh chicken products in grocery stores on any given day.

All this comes as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is changing how it deals with salmonella, a bacteria that can cause diarrhea, cramps and fever and sometimes chills, nausea and vomiting.

The USDA is taking only "baby steps," said Sandra Eskin, the Pew food-safety expert who wrote the report. "They're walking in the right direction perhaps, but at way too slow a pace. We need a few giant steps."

Chicken is the most consumed meat in the United States. Contamination is going to occur, said Dan Englejohn, deputy assistant administrator of the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. "It's not feasible to take a live animal and remove its outsides and its insides without there being contamination," he said, "but we can minimize it."

To that end, the USDA announced a new plan Dec. 4.

In the past, the department allowed contamination to occur as long as the processor removed it, often by washing or using antibacterial treatments, Englejohn said. The USDA is now moving toward forcing "the prevention of the contamination. And if there's evidence that it's not happening then we slow down or stop the processing line."

Pew's Eskin is all for that, but she wants to see something concrete. "There are too many words like 'considering' and 'developing' in the USDA's plans," she said.

"When more then 500 people are reported sick from two illness outbreaks associated with chicken, the systems we have in place are not working to protect public health. They need to be seriously reworked."

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